Numlock Sunday: Ahmed Ali Akbar on why you can't eat the world's greatest mango

By Walt Hickey

Welcome to the Numlock Sunday edition.

This week, I spoke to Ahmed Ali Akbar, who wrote “Inside the Secretive, Semi-Illicit, High Stakes World of WhatsApp Mango Importing” for Eater. Here's what I wrote about it:

Pakistan is the sixth-largest exporter of mangoes in the world, and while the U.S. imported a half million tons of mangoes in 2019, only 100 tons of them were from Pakistan. This is a huge disappointment for not only the Pakistani diaspora, but also people who like the country’s mangoes, which are universally considered particularly great. Pakistan’s mango export market opened up in 2010 thanks to a bit of diplomacy at the time, but in order to get them into the country without pests per USDA regulations, they’ve got to be irradiated first. This is a challenge because a farmer in Pakistan who wants to export the mangos to America needs to find a USDA approved irradiation facility in Pakistan to do so and, bad news on that front, there are none. So for those who manage to score some of the fruit, it’s a real rare treat.

I loved this because it’s not only about a particularly great fruit, but also about how the global food system works and how wild consumer expectations have become.

Akbar can be found at the podcast See Something, Say Something. You should also check out Delivery Wars, another podcast he hosted, and be sure to read the full piece over at Eater, it’s really great.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Header photo by Ravindra Kumar on Scopio

Can you tell me about the world's greatest mango?

The world's greatest mango is contested, but growing up, I heard that the world's greatest mangoes were found in Pakistan and that the ones that we were getting in American supermarkets were sub-par. They were never up to my family's standards. Pretty much every Pakistani person I met would say that Pakistani mangoes are the best in the world.

There's a lot of fighting about that. I want to be clear again — a lot of other people think they've got the best mangoes, but one thing that's undeniable is that Pakistani mangoes are significantly superior to what we get in America, and that's on a number of factors. One would be the aroma, they smell amazing. They smell floral and they can just perfume a whole room if you have enough of them.

That aroma goes into the taste. The taste has this honey, flowers, rose, these kind of flavors. Usually the texture is quite nice, too, quite custardy. And it's just ridiculously sweet. Actually on a number scale, I've seen some videos on the recordings of mangoes’ Brix, which is the unit that they use to determine sweetness, and objectively, it is a ridiculously sweet fruit, one of the sweetest fruits you can find out there.

There's two varieties that I did this reporting on. They're called the Chaunsa and Anwar Ratol. Of the mangoes you see in America, there's two kinds. There’s the big red and green ones, they're kind of crisp. Then there are the smaller ones that kind of look kidney-shaped and they're yellow. The Pakistani mangoes are like those yellow ones.

The red ones, what most people think of as mangoes, look like the mango emoji. That's not what the mangoes look like in Pakistan. They're smaller. Typically, they're green or yellow. They never turn red. Red is a very unusual color for Pakistani mangoes.

The color is also quite different. One of them, the Chaunsa, is this pale yellow color. And then this Anwar Ratol, the other one, is a really intense ochre, like reddish orange. They also have different qualities. It's kind of hard to explain until you have them. But the Anwar Ratol, you can roll it around the end of your plate until it liquefies inside, and then it becomes basically a nature's juice box. So it's very popular for people to roll it until it becomes juice, pop off the top, and just literally suck on the top of the mango. It's become the most flavorful juice you can imagine.

Here's the thing: I am sold. You got me hook, line and sinker. But I can't get them, is my understanding. Let's start with what is the global fruit market, and why can't this happen?

Mangoes are a very popular fruit worldwide. They're exported from countries like India, Pakistan, and Brazil. For a lot of these countries, it's an increasingly important export. But in America we have this specific situation where the mangoes from a lot of Asian countries, Pakistan included, have an irradiation requirement. They were not even legal to import for most of my life, but then in 2010 they were approved by EAFUS, which is the government FDA regulatory boards that approves things like this. It said basically, "Okay, the mangoes are safe. There's no issues with them. The issue is that they might disturb local agriculture. They might bring a pest into America that will destroy our local agriculture. So we need to irradiate it beforehand."

That proved to be a huge bottleneck. Irradiation can mean a lot of things. In this case, gamma or electron beam radiation are two of the most popular forms. This is a bottleneck because not because you've got to irradiate the mangoes, but that it has to be approved by the USDA. You need a USDA representatives to say, "Yep, everything is good here." At this point in time, Pakistan doesn't have that. So, the sellers are very ingenious. The people who have put together the importing of Pakistani mangoes to America have made it work. They basically fly the mangoes over under quarantine conditions. They go from Pakistan to a middle place like Dubai or Istanbul, then to Texas, and then they have to fly to a place in America where they can be irradiated.

There's five places that are approved, the current one is in Mississippi. It goes from Texas to Mississippi on a truck, gets irradiated, and then finally it's allowed to be sold to consumers, and from there it goes to consumers. America is the number two importer of mangoes in the world, and we only get 100 tons of Pakistani mangoes in a year because of this. Well, about 200 actually this year, it actually increased quite a bit this year to over 200. But for most of the last five years, it's been about 100 tons, tops. It's just probably a tenth of a percent. Mexican mangoes are about 65% of the mangoes imported here. Even though that Pakistani quality that I describe is exponentially better than the Mexican mangoes, the amount coming here is so low, despite a ridiculously high demand. That's because of the complications with the irradiation.

It also seems the American fruit distribution system isn't really structured for something — I don't know if I want to say
delicate — but like our apples are designed to endure packaging and plopping and all that kind of stuff. You wrote that lots of the Mexican mangoes are designed for a supermarket system where things might get a little beat up, whereas that doesn't necessarily work as well with the Pakistani mangoes.

That's right, I mean, agriculture is really finicky. People did ask me, "Why don't you just get a seed and put it in the ground and grow it here?" Agriculture is not as easy as that! It is very complicated. The soil conditions matter a lot. People have been trying to take these seeds and grow them here for literally over 100 years, I'm not even joking. It's been over 100 years of people trying to grow these mangoes here. It's a challenge.

You're right also that with the agricultural system, I think that customer's expectations are maybe a little unrealistic. The idea that something can travel thousands of miles and be perfect on the shelves, look nice and also not cost that much, it's just not a realistic thing. It's definitely an unrealistic expectation we have. I didn't really get into this in the story, but I think it's fair to say, we have to modify our expectations about what fruit looks like, how we acquire it and how much it costs. Because usually it costs a lot more, and it requires a lot more engineering and science than you would think. It's really not easy, but I will say, that Canada for instance, and the UK, UAE, Dubai, all these places get Pakistani mangoes very easily.

The issue is made a little simpler because they don't have to irradiate, so they're able to bring a bigger volume. By increasing the volume, they can bring the price down a little bit. It's still pricey, the mangoes still go bad quicker, but when you're able to get it straight to a supermarket or an ethnic grocer, as opposed to going through this crazy rigmarole of going to the irradiation center and back, it kind of improves it a little bit for the consumer. A lot of people will go to Canada to eat these mangoes, because it's easier than getting it here. I described these people buying it through a WhatsApp middleman, which is still the funniest thing in the world to me.

Yeah, I love this kind of story because reading it, my takeaway is that a lot of folks in the diaspora would like to know how to get some of these mangoes and this story was in part a way to kind of get at “here's how exactly you could get them.”

People kept asking me! I did a podcast like a year and a half ago for America's Test Kitchen where I got into the beginnings of the story. Every time I report on it, I learn something new. But it's really hard to get these fruits in America. I think probably Vietnamese populations, Thai populations, Chinese populations feel like, "Oh, I can't get my fruit here. Why can't I get my favorite hometown fruit here?" But what's unique about this is I think there's some level on which Pakistanis, this is a very nationalistic thing, there's national rivalries around mangoes. There's identity and culture based around it, where the customer will actually do really ridiculous things in order to get them.

To me that was the really unique thing about this story, is that the consumer was willing to pay. Not only would they be willing to pay $300 for mangoes, they're willing to drive distances to airports, shipping yards, with nothing but a WhatsApp receipt. They're happy to do that for eight boxes of mangoes! And then they would share it with their friends and family. That requires a level of commitment that most people don't have about their fruit. Most of us just go to supermarket and want to pick them off the shelves. This is a whole bespoke journey.

It seemed like some of what you're describing was just like, "Oh, the only people I know who do this kind of stuff are people trying to buy sneakers." That the lengths that folks will go to get these.

Well, it's funny you say that because in an earlier draft, I described them as I think agricultural Yeezys or something like a low-tech Yeezys. People are waiting for drops. Everyone who looks at them on the outside is like, "Why do you care so much about this thing?" But they spend the time and energy to do it. And once it's gone, it's gone. The other funny thing about this is, people will ask me like, "Where do I get the mangoes?" And sometimes I'll be like, "Yes, there're available," and then it turns out that they're not available. And I say, "Sorry, they're not available anymore." They're like, "How is that possible?"

This goes to show you how the consumer expects access to everything, just in the Amazon world, right? Everything is delivered to your door. It's so cheap. You can't always do that for all products, and a lot of exploitation comes from doing it that way. This model could absolutely be exploitative. I haven't dug into the labor relationships yet because I haven't gone to Pakistan to do so. But the consumer has somewhat unrealistic demands in my opinion.

You write about food and, again, the idea that you can get seasonal fruits or vegetables year round is an extremely recent innovation, one that requires an enormous amount of energy and logistical infrastructure to get an apple on a shelf in spring, right?

One thing that fascinated me is that the mango is also a year long fruit in America, because of the rotation of different countries that import. That's so strange to me, because in Pakistan mangoes are only available really just mid-August, or May to September maybe, depending on which ones you liked. Your favorite varieties are available for four weeks. I could go to Pakistan so many times, at different times of the year, but if I'm not there during this 12 week period or so I don't get mangoes.

So where can folks find you? Where can folks find your work?

I am most active on Twitter. You should read my piece on Eater. I'm also probably most prolific as a podcast host. I do a lot of different podcasts, but my main one, which is coming back out of hiatus this season, is called See Something, Say Something. That's a podcast where I cover American Muslims. I'll be posting more there.

I hosted another podcast with Eater and Recode called Delivery Wars, from Land of the Giants. That also has some data in it. It's about how food delivery companies have kind of become an incredibly competitive industry during the pandemic while so many other businesses are suffering. And how it's based on a venture capital model that may not make the business sense. Does it make good business sense to be able to have food delivery available at all times? From all sorts of restaurants at different times of day for what appears to be a loss to the supplier? It's really costing restauranteurs and drivers a decent amount of money. So, similar stuff to what we talked about in this conversation about what the consumer expects from their goods.

Great! So Twitter,
See Something, Say Something, Delivery Wars, and of course this wonderful piece on Eater.

If you have anything you’d like to see in this Sunday special, shoot me an email. Comment below! Thanks for reading, and thanks so much for supporting Numlock.

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