Anything exploding is bad news in these times of wanton terrorism. Pakistani writer Mohammed Hanif in his book A Case of Exploding Mangoes (2008) wrote about the mysterious death of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq from a suspected case of exploding mangoes. Though the comparison may sound odious, our present-day wholesale mandis for fresh agro-produce resemble no less than disaster scenes — exploded, burst, crushed, mangled cases of mangoes, apples, pomegranates and other such fruit lie strewn everywhere. Methodical systems for the unloading, storage and handling of the fruit are missing. Health, sanitation and safety facilities are minimal. The packing cases in use appear to be able to do little to protect the fruit they are intended to care, leave alone add to its retail worthiness.
India has for long been reputed to be the world’s second-largest producer of fruit and vegetables. Food Processing is the country’s fifth-largest industry supported by a vast natural agro-climatic diversity suitable for the year-round cultivation of crops. Agriculture contributes 24.2% to national GDP, 15.2% of total exports and provides employment to 58.4% of the country’s workforce. India is among the world’s major food producers: animal – 17%, plants – 12%, and fish – 10% (Source: Business Line, MOFPI, July 2009).
Unfortunately, as we have all known for some time, post-harvest losses of perishable agro-produce in India is also possibly among the highest in the world — estimates range from 25-40%. Approximately 1% of national GDP is reported to be lost from farm to fork — or rather, from tree to truck. Nearly 7% of Indian grain rots in fields and granaries.
As quoted recently in a Hindustan Times editorial, “Refrigeration that would preserve this food is non-existent. Only one in seven tonnes of our veggies go through cold storage. Foreign investment in cold chains has not materialized because India denies their developers access to retail sales. Walmart and Carrefour with their deep back-end infrastructure can contain this horrible waste. The next Green Revolution is waiting to happen if we could stop 1% of our GDP from spoiling before it reaches the dinner plate.”
Indian agri-business is renowned for its long and fragmented supply chain. The inefficiencies in the supply chain lead to huge losses due to wastage or reduction of perishable commodities. The entire supply chain is dominated by unorganized players and the absence of structured markets to ensure correct price recovery and availability of consistent quality produce. Several middlemen add to wastages from the farm to the consumer retailer, processor or exporter.
A long supply chain also means that each level of the supply chain is unaware of the requirements of the next level and thus there is a disconnect between the farmer and processor. Indian farmers get a mere third of the price the consumer pays in contrast to two-thirds of the final value earned by their counterparts in countries that have organized scale buyers.
“A majority of the fruit and vegetables that a common middle-class person gets and eats in India would be considered sub-standard in developed countries,” says Umesh Agrawal. He has been involved in the area of post-harvest management of horticulture produce for about four years. He has been working on the planning and installation of Controlled Atmosphere Stores, Multi-Commodity modern Cold Stores, and Fruit Ripening facilities. “There is a huge gap between the requirement and availability of facilities — be it storage or preservation, transport and handling, or distribution and retailing,” he says.
I requested him for his insights:
DM: What have you learned about the quality and handling conditions for agro produce shipping cases used in major fruit exporting countries like Chile, the Philippines and other countries?
Umesh Agrawal: The fruit is packed right after picking at the orchards itself, in corrugated boxes, palletized and placed in shipping containers. The size of boxes is usually around 12 to 20 kilograms. Stacking on a pallet is 2400 mm high (8 layers for an 18-kilogram box) and the boxes are designed to take this load. After arrival at the destination port the boxes are subject to multiple handling and transport up to the final retail point.
DM: During your attempt to improve the shipping and storage of banana boxes for the Indian market what were the major challenges faced — technical as well as commercial?
Umesh Agrawal: The cost of an 18-kilogram banana box with construction and strength similar to the type described above costs N45 to 50 or more. Banana being a low price fruit that is consumed mostly by the masses, cannot bear the extra cost of N3 per kilogram. There may not be any technical challenges, however, this will be known for certain only after the experience of using the boxes practically.
DM: What is your estimate of the benefits likely to accrue if state-of-art shipping and storage practices were to be adopted for the agro produce markets in India?
Umesh Agrawal: The advantages are obvious. Massive wastage that is happening today can be significantly reduced. Poor quality that is only due to lack of proper packing will be avoided. This will improve the price to farmers-growers and deliver better value and quality to the consumer.
“World-class facilities for storage, grading, ripening and packaging of agricultural produce would be provided at the mandis across the (Haryana) State,” read a news report by Hemant Singh, from Chandigarh, in September 2010.
His report: Farmers in Haryana won’t be complaining of poor facilities at fruit and vegetable mandis across the states anymore. In a major initiative, the Haryana State Agricultural Board is making mandis high-tech by equipping them with world-class facilities that are needed for storage, grading, ripening and packaging of the agricultural produce.
Initially, these hi-tech mandis are coming up at Panchkula, Gurgaon, Faridabad, Shahbad and Jind. The facilities that these mandis will offer to farmers include cold storage chambers with varying degrees of refrigeration required for a particular vegetable, which will increase the shelf life of the produce, automatic washing, drying and packaging facilities and grading lines for qualitative classification of each produce.
The most important feature of these mandis will be ethylene ripening chambers that are used world over. Ethylene is a neutral ripening agent for agricultural produce.
“Farmers are right now ripening their fruits and vegetables with the help of carcinogenic agents like calcium carbide. But with the introduction of ethylene ripening chambers they can ripen their produce in a more eco-friendly way and increase their shelf life,” Haryana State Agricultural Board Chief Engineer Prem Singh said.
“Later, these facilities will be extended to mandis in Narnaul, Hisar, Panipat and Yamuna Nagar. As a part of the National Horticulture Mission, high-tech post-harvest facilities are being provided to the farmers. Therefore, major mandis are being upgraded in the first phase of this modernisation initiative,” Singh added.
The National Horticulture Mission has provided a subsidy of 25% and the rest has been the state’s contribution in the upgrade process of mandis all across the state. “For the management of fruit and vegetables throughout the year at internationally recognized standards calls for around 200 commodity hubs across the state and we are gearing up for providing the farmers’ such facilities,” a board official said.
With a level of concern similar to that of Haryana, the Himachal Pradesh Government has been taking steps to improve infrastructure around and protect its most important horticultural crop — apples. Apples are by far the most important fruit crop of Himachal Pradesh and the mainstay of a rural economy in many hilly districts of the state. More than two decades ago the state banned the use of wood for packing cases of apples and designed and distributed corrugated boxes with pulp trays capable of holding 20 kilograms of apples.
A state-owned modern factory was set up in the heart of the apple orchard area of Himachal to manufacture and distribute the apple boxes. To discourage the use of wooden cases that were leading to swift depletion of tree cover on the mountainsides, the boxes were supplied to apple farmers at highly subsidized costs. Reports in HimVani (Himachal local media) observed that almost 22 million apple boxes are needed for shipping out the apple crop from Himachal this year. (It is reported to be a bad year for the crop as almost 50% of it was destroyed by untimely hail-storms in the area. Last year’s crop needed 44.5 million boxes.)
Deep concern is also expressed about the poor state of the roads and bridges in the state connecting the apple and vegetable growing areas to the markets. It is obvious that such poor conditions of transportation would result in damage to the fruit packing cases and bruised unsalable produce.
It may be instructive at this point to reflect on some of the instructions to Philadelphia farmers posted on the internet by their local horticultural association:
Quality produce is essential to repeat sales. Off-quality produce should be left in the field. Some buyers are interested in second quality, but second quality should be packed separately and clearly represented as second quality.
Uniformity is the key to a well-graded and packed product. Size, color, maturity and shape should be uniform within a package, a grade and a shipment. Misshapen, off-color, bruised or scarred produce does not belong in a first quality package at all.
Communication with the buyer is essential. Ask the buyer what package they prefer, what quality characteristics they require, and so forth.
“We provide an exclusive range of mango boxes which are eco friendly and hygienic,” says the website of Multiply Paper Packaging Industries, Noida. (http://www.boxandcartons.com/fruit-boxes.html) It says, the mango boxes are, “Designed using advanced technology. These mango boxes are waterproof, moisture resistant and free from external impurities. These mango boxes preserve the freshness, taste, flavor and aroma of mangoes for a longer period of time. Available in various designs shapes and sizes, our range of fruit boxes are widely appreciated across the globe.” All this is true, and surely an effort in the right direction. Multiply Paper Packaging, and several other companies like it are trying to tap into the vast market for packing cases for agro-produce.
“Buyer expectations regarding performance and handling practices for corrugated boxes are resulting in big changes,” says Pankaj Shah, chairman, Western India Corrugated Box Manufacturers Association (WICMA). He goes on to say, “In the early 70s, Kraft paper was manufactured by a handful of small paper mills. The concept of small paper mills brought in many manufacturers of Kraft paper. Easy import of waste paper helped in this growth.
Bursting Strength and Burst Factor became one single yardstick to gauge the quality of paper. This was in tune with mostly manual handling of the corrugated boxes at the time, which were prone to tearing or bursting. Nowadays, developed countries have high-ceilinged godowns and mechanized handling. In such a handling environment, compression strength becomes more relevant. Better box compression (BCT) requires better Edge Crush Strength ( ECT) of the corrugated board and better Ring Crush Test (RCT) of paper. In India too, the industry is gradually moving towards palletizing boxes and mechanical handling. This trend will continue and the corrugated box will need to be evaluated on BCT instead of BS and therefore, the paper will need to be evaluated on RCT instead of BF.”
Even small nations with meager resources look towards their agro-produce crops as harbingers of prosperity and social change. Haiti, for example, has 25,000 mango farmers who are helping to make their country grow into prosperity again after the devastating earthquake which struck there some years ago. Mangoes are the Caribbean nation’s second-biggest export, behind coffee, and are a US$ 10 million a year industry.
However, there’s a lack of infrastructure in Haiti too. Bringing the fruit to market is a complex endeavor. It involves several layers of middlemen who provide financing, transportation and resale functions. Sometimes farmers sell too early, allowing fruit to be picked when unripe. In other cases, they lack proper pruning tools. And the fruit is often so damaged that 20% to 40% of the harvest is lost somewhere between picking and exporting. Yet Haiti exports its mangoes to Whole Foods (a major US grocery chain) where it sells for US$2 a mango.
Bringing change by design to the packaging of agro-produce — to the packaging and sale of our King of Fruit, the Mighty Mango — thus clearly involves not just the packing case but the entire supply chain.
This article was first published in the July 2011 print issue of Packaging South Asia.