Indonesia now exports more durian abroad than it imports, setting it on a course to see its first durian surplus in nine years. (Antara Photo/Aditya Pradana Putra)

Indonesia on the Cusp of Its First Durian Surplus in Nine Years


NOVEMBER 27, 2018

Jakarta. The fact that Indonesia has been a net importer of durian for nearly a decade could ignite a nationalism-fueled debate in this campaign season.

Fortunately, Indonesians may just be spared such an unfruitful wrangle after recent government statistics showed that the country is now shipping more of the fruit abroad than it is bringing in, setting it on a course to see its first durian surplus in nine years.

"Exports of durian from January to September 2018 increased to 1,084 metric tons, while 351 tons were imported. So the surplus was 733 tons," Suwandi, director general of horticulture at the Ministry of Agriculture said on Monday, citing Central Statistics Agency (BPS) data. The country recorded a 524-ton deficit last year.

The figures look small compared with the country's top exports, such as palm oil, rubber and coffee, which ship in hundreds of thousands or even millions of tons. The durian exports only account for less than 0.14 percent of Indonesia's total production of the smelly fruit, reflecting how hard it is for farmers to meet local demand.

The country has come a long way since importing around 27,000 tons of durian, worth $38 million, in 2011, which is Indonesia's highest figure since UN Comtrade – the commodity trade section of the United Nations' statistics division – began recording data on the commodity in 2010.

Commodity imports have been a contentious issue in this year's presidential campaign. Challenger Prabowo Subianto, stoking nationalistic sentiment, said he would stop all imports. His running mate, Sandiaga Uno, visits local markets daily to constantly remind President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo that most of Indonesia's soybeans are imported.

But when it comes to durian, the government has laid out a foundation to achieve self-sufficiency and it is now looking to expand its competitive advantage, Suwandi said. Based on weight, the tropical fruit fetches three times the price of palm oil, Indonesia's main commodity export.

Suwandi said there were about 8.2 million durian trees across the archipelago in 2017 that produced 795,000 tons of fruit. The agriculture ministry opened another 5,000 hectares of durian plantations and doubled the distribution of quality seedlings to farmers to 211,000 this year to boost production.

The government also improved systems and regulations to further accelerate the management of investment and export permits.

The country's end goal is to compete in the race to meet growing global demand of the fruit, driven by China, a giant market relatively close to Indonesia with a subtropical climate, unlikely to produce the fruit anytime soon.

The Chinese are putting the fruit in their dessert, yogurt and even hotpots, which saw six-fold increase in its durian imports over the past decade.

The world's most populous country, with 1.4 billion people, imported 350,000 tons of durian, worth $510 million, which was a 15 percent increase by volume from last year. At the current rate, China could match Indonesia's durian consumption by 2023.

There are only a few countries with the right climatic conditions and expertise to consistently harvest durian throughout the year.

Saowanit Noodaeng, an economist at Shanghai University, wrote in the European Journal of Business and Management that Thailand exported around 170,000 tons of durian to China in 2016, with the other main exporters being Vietnam and Malaysia.

Suwandi said besides Thailand, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands and Australia, Indonesia also exports durian to China.

"Our durians are no longer exclusive to the domestic market. We are optimistic that the volume of our durian exports will continue to increase from now on," he said.