Cheap imports from Thailand and Vietnam are damaging the reputation of the much sought after Kampot durian, writes Chea Vannak.
Durian is an acquired taste. Some compare its foul-smelling flesh to the aroma of mouldy socks and rotten eggs. But for aficionados of Southeast Asia’s king of fruits, nothing beats it.
The durian season is short, running from June to July, which makes the fruit expensive.
People will spend to get the best, and Kampot durians are renowned for being just that.
But as the durian season gets under way, growers are warning cheap imports risk damaging the reputation of Kampot’s most famous fruit.
Ms Sah, who is known by one name, owns a 300-durian tree farm in Kampot.
This time of year is busy, harvesting produce and transporting it to traders in the province and Phnom Penh.
Standing under a tree at her farm in Tek Chhu district, Ms Sah carefully wraps a spikey durian in newspaper, explaining how imports of cheap fruit are being sold under the Kampot name by some unscrupulous vendors.
“Everyone knows that original Kampot durian is the best quality and tastes extra sweet, so demand in the market is high,” she says.
Ms Sah, has been running her durian farm for nearly two decades, but is worried about the future.
“I won’t increase the size of my plantations at the moment because the price of durian is not stable. Imports have driven prices down,” she explains. “And most people don’t have the knowledge to identify Kampot durian from others.”
The price of her fruit reflects the fact it is a premium product, she says, but sellers of lower quality versions also want to cash in.
Cheap durian sell for about $2 per kilogramme, ranging up to $5 per kg for the finest fruits.
Ms Sah says imports from Vietnam and Thailand come in at the bottom of the range, but sellers are relabelling them as Kampot fruits, to command a higher price.
Large numbers of imports are bringing the whole market down.
Durians were cultivated across 1,193 hectares of land in Kampot province last year, providing a 33,000 tonne harvest, according to Kampot Agriculture Department.
Seng Siang produces about 4,000 durians on his farm in Kampot each season.
“Local people prefer Kampot durian although the price is high,” Mr Siang says, as he picks fruit from a tree. “The problem is that imported durian is labelled as Kampot durian and sold at a cheap price, so it damages our name.”
Despite this, he is optimistic and says support from consumers has encouraged him to expand his business.
Chan Rithy, director of Kampot’s provincial agriculture department, says plentiful rainfall at the start of the year means the durian harvest will be bountiful.
“Kampot is famous for its durian and this year will be a good year for the crop,” Mr Rithy says. “The big harvest will meet rising demand from consumers.”
Mr Rithy adds the government is working worked to get the Kampot durian listed as a protected Geographic Identity (GI) product.
For Ms Sah, GI status offers hope for preserving Kampot’s unique crop and giving consumers the confidence they are buying the best.
“The price is high, but people’s incomes have also increased, so I think the fruit is affordable. If people want to support domestic agriculture, they should buy more Khmer products, not only Kampot durian,” Ms Sah says.