Business, Finance & Economics

Push for mango diplomacy with Pakistan leaves some Americans feeling bitter

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Gwen Williams and Tahir Sandhu are hoping to import Pakistani mangoes to the United States. (Photo by Odette Yousef.)

The first time Gwen Williams ever tried a mango was six years ago.

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Her husband, Tahir Sandhu, bought them at a grocery store in Illinois, where they were living at the time.

“He said ‘Oh, these are very good mangoes.’ I didn’t know how to eat it, I didn’t really even know what it was,” she said.

They were really soft and ripe

“And he was like, ‘Roll it around,’ and I’m like, ‘OK’, ” she recalled.

As she rolled this mango between her two hands, her husband told her to eat it. She balked. It wasn't even sliced open yet.

That's how mothers in Pakistan used to feed mangoes to their children, he said.

"You'll stay busy for quite a while," he said.

Tahir, who grew up in Pakistan, showed Gwen how to eat it. He cut a tiny slit at the top of the mango.

“It felt like holding a really thick milkshake. You just slurp it out of the little slit. It was wonderful,” Gwen said.

In Pakistan, mangoes are called the King of Fruit. Pakistani mangoes are less fibrous and much sweeter than the Mexican mangoes that are typically sold in the United States.

Williams and Sandhu are starting a new chapter of their lives in Lahore, Pakistan. They want to start importing Pakistani mangoes to the U.S. Tahir said they got the idea from Hillary Clinton.

“Mrs. Clinton was in the media telling everybody that we are going to get Pakistani mangoes here,” he said.

That was in the summer of 2010, when Secretary of State Clinton was visiting Islamabad. At that point, you couldn’t buy Pakistani mangoes in the America. USDA rules made it difficult to bring in Pakistani fruit. But once top officials in both countries started pushing for a mango trade deal, after years of negotiations, things began to move.

Williams read about it in the newspaper, Sandhu said.

“She read that, and she said ‘Look at this, what is going on?’ I said ‘Yeah, Pakistani mango is the best mango, so what? It should be here, why not?’ ”

So Williams and Sandhu quit their jobs as research librarians to get into the mango trade.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi was Pakistan’s foreign minister at the time Clinton endorsed mango trade. He said the mango deal isn’t just about moving fruit; it’s about moving perceptions.

“Mango diplomacy could have led to a better understanding between the two people," he said.

That’s right — “mango diplomacy.”

The idea is to help both countries see that their ties can go beyond fighting terrorism together. They can promote each other’s economic interests through trade, and in the process, perhaps, repair fraying relations between the U.S. and Pakistan.

Wins all around, right? Not according to businessman Abid Butt in New York.

“The total cost of this venture exceeded $70,000 to me,” Butt said.

He was the first to import Pakistani mangoes for sale once the deal was finalized last summer.

“I am still in debt, paying my bills," he said.

Butt imported almost 3 tons of mangoes. He said it was a red-tape nightmare from the start. First it was hard to persuade Pakistani mango growers to sell to him. When Butt finally got one orchard to supply him, it charged him triple what it charges the local market. Then there was the high cost of flying the fruit to Chicago and then ground shipment to New York.

“The first day of arrival we sold about six boxes for $100 a box, in order to cover whatever we could cover.”

One box holds about six mangoes, so that was about $16 per mango.

“Then we reduced it to $70, then to $50, then to last day $30,” Butt said. He finally had to throw away about 40 percent of the mangoes he brought in.

When it came to the nuts and bolts of getting the mangoes here, this deal left him bitter. He won’t do it again.

And his advice to the would-be mango importers from Illinois? Do your research.

That’s exactly what the two former librarians are doing in Pakistan. Sandhu said he thinks Americans will like the fruit if they get a chance to try it.

Maybe, he said, they’ll adopt the Pakistani tradition of throwing mango parties.

“You put them in an ice box, and then you just talk, or watch a cricket game, and then you just eat mangoes,” he said.

More likely in America they'll be watching football. But mangoes go with football too, right?

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