Vivek Damle casts a glance one last time to see if he can interest anyone in the Alphonso mangoes from his orchard that he is selling. It’s nearly 11am, time to pack up and leave the residential locality in Pune, Maharashtra. In these lockdown times, vendors can operate only from 7-11am. “How much can you sell in four hours? On weekends, there is a complete lockdown. Also, people too don’t seem to be coming to buy as much,” rues Damle.
He and his brother have an orchard with 2,000 hapus (as Alphonso is known in the state) trees in a village in Ratnagiri district. This is peak season for them but Damle and other growers from Maharashtra’s Konkan region—home to the “king of mangoes” that got geographical indication (GI) protection in 2018—have been weathering losses since the last season.
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Last year, a nationwide lockdown was declared at the start of the mango season (March-May); the harvest was good but the closure of wholesale Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) markets and stoppage of transport and exports took a toll. In June, cyclone Nisarga wreaked damage on orchards. Record rain and a shorter winter followed.
“Many trees received a shock from last year’s cyclone. As a result, the flowering was not much and we barely got 30-40% of the crop this year,” says Vivek Bhide, chairman of the Konkan Alphonso Mango Producers and Sellers Cooperative Association. Worse, about 20% of the mangoes had not been plucked when cyclone Tauktae ripped through the west coast last week, bringing the season to an abrupt end.
An estimated 200,000 growers are in deep debt, according to Sanjay Yadavrao, chairman of the Kokan Bhumi Pratishthan, which promotes tourism and business in the coastal region. “We need a relief package of at least ₹1,000 crore for Alphonso growers,” he says.
Alphonso mangoes—relished for their flavour and texture—are grown on around 200,000 hectares, primarily in the three districts of Raigad, Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg. The latter two account for 80% of the fruit. A majority of the produce is sent to Mumbai, with 30% of it being exported.
“During the three-month season, the region generates ₹2,200-3,000 crore revenue from Alphonso mangoes. This time, I would be surprised if it even touches ₹1,500 crore,” says Bhide. The mangoes are usually exported to the UK, Europe and West Asian countries, among others.
“Half of Konkan’s economy is dependent on Alphonso orchards, as they give employment to villagers. Now, farmers are looking at a debt ranging from ₹10 lakh to ₹1 crore depending on the orchard size. It will take us at least five years to recover. We are not asking for full debt relief but the government must provide us with some relief which it can spread over a two- to three-year span,” says Yadavrao.
Meanwhile, farmers who were unable to offload the produce for some reason will be selling it to canning industries for the pulp. “The rate offered for canning has also reduced. Earlier, we would get ₹20-25 per kilogram, which has now come down to ₹10. It will hardly amount to anything,” says Vilas Varise, a small orchard owner in Ratnagiri’s Pawas village.
Despite the overall gloom, the pandemic has opened up new ways of reaching and engaging with buyers. Last year, the state allowed sale directly to customers. “The authorities set a minimum price of ₹350 per dozen, which was a decent price for the seller and buyer. Overall, this broke the age-old traditional dependence of growers on agents (who then sell to wholesalers),” Bhide says.
“Covid-19 has brought what we would call in Marathi ishtapatti, or blessing in disguise. Farmers are gathering confidence to directly take their produce to the cities instead of selling it to the middleman,” says Bhide. In fact, retailers in nearby districts like Dhule and Amravati too are directly reaching out to farmers for supply.
Many growers and sellers have been quick learners, using social media and offering home delivery. Amit Shinde of Lush Mango, a wholesale seller at the APMC, Vashi, ventured into retail last year. He has created a website, come up with packaging boxes and hired delivery boys—but the response has been tepid this year.
Some have come together as a group for better reach. Simran Kode, whose family owns an orchard of 200 trees in Kankavli taluk in Sindhudurg district, has partnered with 10 other farmers and tapped into her network in Mumbai and Thane, where she used to live before the pandemic, to sell directly to customers.
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“Many farmers are finding they are getting a better price. As for me, I am making as much in the three months as I was earning in a year in a job in Thane,” says Kode. Their mango sales have fetched her more than ₹5 lakh this year, and she is planning to ramp up by partnering with more farmers. She has acquired 500 customers in the two seasons, half of them repeat customers, she says.
Madhav Pense, an orchard owner in Ratnagiri, agrees. WhatsApp has helped him gain customers in housing societies in Pune; a few customers are even buying from him to sell to their colleagues. “The only problem of selling directly to customers is the customer service when someone complains. When you are selling it to an agent, if some mangoes get spoilt, they won’t come back for replacements. Having said that, I believe you get a good rate by directly selling to the end buyer,” says Pense, who has incurred at least 35% loss over the last two seasons.
The association had been trying for the GI tag for the region’s mangoes since 2008. A prime motivation was to stand out from the “copycat” alphonso mangoes that are sold in Mumbai and other cities as Konkan mangoes. There is a one third price difference between the two varieties, with Konkan alphonso variety being costlier.
Bhide believes the only way to secure the identity of Konkan mangoes is by increasing the usage of Geographical Indication (GI) tag. The progress, however, has been slow last two years. “Farmers are also not in a mood to experiment. Still, we are the only GI tagged crop, where nearly 700 farmers have registered for it,” says Bhide.