How Technology Can Help Thailand’s Durian Export Market Thrive
Tuesday, May 24th, 2022
Thailand is known worldwide for its durian exports, with China being its key export market. But with the COVID-19 pandemic causing delays in shipments and ultimately leading to food waste, durian exporters in Thailand are turning to technology to save their products and continue contributing to the Thai economy.
A look into Thailand’s durian export relationship with China
Prior to China’s World Trade Organization accession and China-Thailand Free Trade Agreement in the early 2000s, Thailand accommodated Chinese demand for its durians by first exporting to Hong Kong, which then reexported the fruit to China. By the end of the 1990s, the volume of Thai durian reexports rose by up to 70%.
Since then, China has become the key export market for Thai durians. According to a 2018 study*, China’s move to import durians and other fresh fruits came as its middle-class population significantly grew, resulting in rising food consumption and more diverse demand. From 2011 to 2016, durian became the most exported fruit from Thailand to China.
Today, Thailand’s durian export market continues to see steady growth, with China’s e-commerce industry enabling the supply chain of both countries. In fact, Thailand Minister of Commerce Jurin Laksanawisit* reported that Thailand exported $567 million worth of durians to China from January to April 2020 alone despite stringent lockdown measures and border controls implemented at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was also around this period when China established five shipping lines under its “One Belt, One Road” trade initiatives with Southeast Asian countries to import more durians from Thailand to meet high local demand. Durian is now considered one of the major trade commodities transported through these new routes. Moreover, the heightened demand for the fruit led to an increase in durian middlemen, from 300 to 700 around the same period.
By 2021, Thailand exported more than 875,000 tonnes of durian* to China, generating $3.4 billion. More than 140,000 farming households and individuals* in the Thai durian business are now also able to survive and thrive today because of Thailand’s durian export market. If demand for the fruit continues to rise, durian exports may likely exceed 2021 volumes and sales.
However, despite its continuous supply chain operations, Thailand’s durian export market is fraught with many challenges.
Identifying the challenges at hand
One of the glaring problems that Thailand’s durian export market has and continues to experience since the pandemic began is contamination and viral infection. In order to prevent the spread of the virus, Chinese ports test transported goods and exporters for COVID-19 and observe strict clearance operations. If border patrols detect COVID-19 contamination or positive cases, transported goods would be destroyed and borders would be closed for a certain period of time, resulting in growers and exporters losing profit.
A similar case to this happened in January 2021 when rumors of imported Chilean cherries* contaminated with COVID-19 spread across Chinese social media, scaring end customers who were planning to give cherries as gifts on Chinese New Year as part of their tradition. This caused cherry sales in the country to drop, with retailers reducing the price of cherries* from 60 yuan or $9.32 for one kilo to only 16 yuan or $2.49. This incident not only hurt Chilean growers but also Chinese importers and distributors.
A few longan exporters in Thailand also experienced the implications of COVID-19 contamination in 2021. According to Chonlatee Numnoo*, director of the Agricultural Research and Development Office in Thailand’s Region 6, the damage caused thousands of tonnes of longans to spoil. Durian growers and exporters in the country are worried that the same case would happen to them. Considering that Eastern Thailand, which is home to the country’s largest durian producers, is estimated to produce up to 720,000 tons of durians this 2022*, contaminations can greatly hurt the livelihood of thousands of durian growers.
Aside from the COVID-19 problem at hand, exporters are made to pay higher shipping costs for the sake of meeting demand. Naturally, this resulted in durian prices going up. Produce Report revealed that the price of imported durians rose from $4.0 per kilogram in 2020 to $5.11 in 2021. Unless shipping difficulties persist and China fails to commercialize its domestic durians, Thai durian prices will likely continue to rise in the country.
Lastly, since ports and borders are made to observe health and safety protocols, delays in shipments and food spoilage have become inevitable. For instance, COVID-19 surveillance procedures caused a traffic bottleneck at the Youyi Guan border* crossing in China in May 2021, leaving up to 700 vehicles no choice but to wait two to three days, instead of only two to three hours, to pass the checkpoint.
Because of the traffic congestion and the delays in shipping, exporters were recommended to change their routes or consider transporting their goods by sea to prevent spoilage. Temperature plays a big role when shipping durians are highly perishable. Too much heat, either due to changes in their environment or lack of proper storage refrigeration, could eventually cause durians to spoil and burn. Meanwhile, it would also not be ideal to ship durians during non-peak seasons like winter as they would likely not ripen properly and make them hard and tasteless.
Resolving food safety challenges with technology
Fortunately, thanks to advancements in health and technology, durian exporters from Thailand can employ a number of solutions to protect their goods from contamination and spoilage while in transit.
For instance, Thailand has already doubled down on its zero-COVID-19 strategy at durian farms and packing houses to avoid or at least minimize the risks of contamination. Part of this strategy includes regularly testing workers for COVID-19, screening exporters for body temperature, and disinfecting the goods, their packaging, and the vehicles bringing them to China. Exporters who are falling behind this strategy are expected to pick up their pace to ensure that their durians do not get contaminated from farm to fork.
When it comes to ensuring durians remain safe and fresh while in transit, even as shipping trucks are stuck at ports and borders, exporters can use cargo monitoring solutions to check the condition of their goods and their environment. Emerson cargo solutions offer a wide range of GO Trackers and Loggers designed to gather accurate data on temperature, humidity, and location. GO Trackers utilize the latest 4G/5G cellular technology to further enhance access and connectivity as shipments moves through the supply chain. Working in tandem with Trackers and Loggers is the Emerson Oversight software, which provide comprehensive real-time information about shipments and is accessible via web browser or mobile app.
Cargo monitoring solutions prove to be convenient when shipping trucks or borders do not have a cold chain system. When durian exporters in Thailand ship their goods, the durians are only placed in boxes instead of plastic or wood pallets and disinfected with the help of spray machines. They are then manually carried off by laborers to trucks that would transport them to China. This process usually takes two to three hours and done in open environments where temperatures rise up to 35 degrees Celsius. Because of the conditions they are put through, the durians may get too hot while in transit to China. If durians are placed in very cold temperatures, on the other hand, it may be difficult to cool them down later on.
Cargo monitoring solutions can also prove useful when truck drivers cannot rely on their own senses such as smell to determine the condition of durians.
With technology, durian exporters in Thailand stand a chance at protecting their produce, preserving their freshness while in transit, and satisfying the growing demand of China, even amidst stringent lockdown measures and border restrictions.
For more information on Emerson cargo solutions, visit: Climate.Emerson.Com/Asia/CargoSolutions
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