How China’s insatiable demand is changing durian industry in Southeast Asia

By Minh Hieu   June 25, 2024 | 03:12 pm PT
How China’s insatiable demand is changing durian industry in Southeast Asia
Durians in an orchard in the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho. Photo by VnExpress/ Manh Khuong
China’s burgeoning demand for durian is transforming Southeast Asian farming and the lives of people growing the strong smelling fruit.

Two decades ago Nguyen Thi Anh Hong and her family moved from the northern Phu Tho Province to Cu M’gar District in Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands to start life from scratch.

After six years of hard work she managed to save enough to buy some land and started farming durian.

Thanks to the booming demand in China, prices of the fruit have remained at high levels for the last few years, fetching billions of dong (VND1 billion = US$39,290) per harvest to farmers like Hong.

Her orchard produced 47 tons last harvest, which she sold to merchants and exporters at VND84,000 per kilogram.

"Deducting the VND200 million costs, our orchard made VND3.2 billion in profits," she told Nguoi Lao Dong newspaper.

The so-called "king of fruits" has always been divisive: Some praise it for its sweet taste and creamy texture, while others abhor its rotten-egg odor.

Regardless its unique flavor and smell, there is no denying that there is insatiable demand for it in China, which has reshaped the durian landscape in several Southeast Asian countries, according to U.S. newspaper The New York Times.

The fruit has, in recent years, become even fashionable in China, where over 1.4 billion people live.

Not only is it eaten fresh, but is also made into desserts and other sweet treats.

Guangxi Xuan Ma Food, a company producing packaged snacks and baked goods, saw sales of its durian-flavored cakes soar from 800,000 yuan (US$110,260) in 2019, when they were launched, to over 10 million yuan last year.

"People's obsession with durian has expanded into durian-flavored pastry and beverages," Tang Chunlong, the Nanning-based company’s deputy general manager, told Xinhua News Agency.

The fruit has become a trendy addition to milk tea, a popular beverage in China.

It has even penetrated the cultural scene, and is now seen as a preferred gift on many occasions.

"My cousin got engaged last month and my mother-in-law asked me to replace the grapes with durian, as she thinks it is more decent and fashionable as a present," Ma Qian, who runs a small painting workshop for children in Henan province, told the South China Morning Post.

"She and many locals had durian for the first time this year and quickly liked the taste. It’s funny that my mother-in-law, who is a typically frugal older rural person, now often hints to us to buy a durian as a treat for her."

The country’s "craze" for durian has been the driving force behind the 400% surge in global demand for the fruit between 2021 and 2022, according to an HSBC report cited by CNBC.

China accounted for 91% of global demand, importing US$6 billion worth of the fruit, in those two years, the report said.

The country procured a whopping 1.43 million tons worth $6.7 billion of the pungent fruit in the last year alone, up 66% from 2022, according to data from the General Administration of Customs of China.

An industry transformed

At the forefront of sustaining China’s hunger for durian are Thailand and Vietnam, with Malaysia also being a top supplier.

As Chinese demand skyrockets, all of these Southeast Asian countries have seen their durian industries expand and play increasingly crucial roles in their economies.

Thailand, the first country permitted to export fresh durian to China, saw its durian exports to China surge to $3.75 billion last year, according to Thai government data referenced by Xinhua. This is an increase from $128 million in 2012, as reported by the United Nations Comtrade database.

Its durian output rose by 180% in the last 12 years to 1.4 million tons last year while the area under the fruit rose by 80%, Thai newspaper Khaosod English reported.

It now accounts for 25% of the export of the country’s four main agricultural products, the other three being rice, rubber and cassava.

Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin said in April that his government was ready to support export of the fruit, underlining its role as one of the country’s major economic crops.

The high demand from China has prompted Thai farmers to consider growing durian instead of others crops such as rice and maize, according to the Bangkok Post.

Durian is grown everywhere instead of being concentrated in a few eastern provinces unlike in past years. Likewise, Vietnam’s durian industry has been expanding since the fruit was officially approved for import by China in 2022.

The area under durian has more than doubled since 2020 to 151,000 hectares, Nguyen Quoc Manh, deputy director of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development’s crop production department, told Nhan Dan Online newspaper.

Consequently, production soared from 366,300 tons to nearly 1.2 million tons, he added.

Exports of the fruit to China shot up from $420 million in 2022 to $2.1 billion last year, persuading farmers across the country growing various other crops to switch to durian.

The agriculture ministry has warned that the massive surge in durian production could lead to an oversupply and export quality control issues.

In Malaysia, the forests in the hills surrounding Raub, a small city 90 minutes away from the capital Kuala Lumpur, are being cleared and terraced to establish durian plantations to meet China's growing demand, The New York Times reported.

"I think durian will be the new economic boom for Malaysia," Minister of Agriculture Mohamad Sabu has said.

The prospect of high profits has ignited tensions, resulting in land disputes and heightened security measures. Some roadside orchards are now enclosed with razor wire and signs warning against theft.

A fortune for farmers

The booming durian trade has also changed farmers’ lives for the better. Those who grow and sell the fruit in Malaysia and Thailand have become wealthy.

Eric Chan started his durian business 15 years ago in Malaysia when the fruit was cheap and often sold from the back of trucks there.

"Everybody has been making good money [recently]," he said, referring to the once-poor durian farmers in Raub. "They switched from wood to brick houses. And they can afford to send their children overseas for university."

Meanwhile, signs of durian wealth are also ubiquitous in Chanthaburi Province, where the Thai durian industry is centered, with modern houses and gleaming new hospitals.

"When you are from another province and you arrive here, you come to realize that durian farmers are very, very rich," said Abhisit Meechai, a car dealer whose clientele includes many durian farmers.

In Vietnam, rags-to-riches stories like Hong’s are not too rare as thousands of durian orchards in Krong Pak District, Dak Lak’s main growing area, have been reporting multi-billion-dong profits in recent years.

Nguyen Viet Suu, who owns a two-hectare orchard in the district, harvested 60 tons of durian and earned VND3.5 billion last season.

Y Drin Niê, who has a durian farm in Ea Tu Commune in Dak Lak’s Buon Me Thuot City, said he never imagined such massive profits could come from a single type of fruit.

Hopeful of its prospects, he plans to plant 50 more durian trees on his orchard, he told Vnbusiness newspaper.

"If things remain the way they are, durian will bring prosperity to my family and many other farming households in Ea Tu."

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