One of Australia's leading mango producers is operating on lower margins on export sales in this COVID-19 affected year, to ensure its international customers can continue to get supply, especially where the demand is very high.
Managing Director at Manbulloo, Marie Piccone says, like many other exporters, Mango Road (Manbulloo’s export company) has an extra challenge this year with the cost of airfreight, to markets where the company has developed brand recognition and strong relationships with in past seasons.
"There is strong demand for the Manbulloo brand in Asia and North America, which is great," she said. "So that we are continuing to supply we have taken some slightly reduced margins. Interestingly our customers have also been prepared to pay more to get the product, and I think our import partners are also taking slightly less margins as well. There still seems to be demand from retailers and consumers, which is great. We also are closely watching developments surrounding trade with China."
Popularity is also climbing in the "niche market" of the United States, with the same, if not more, volumes expected to be sent to the West Coast.
"It certainly seems that we are getting more penetration. Manbulloo's Kensington Pride, R2E2 and Keitt are still very “new” products, but we are certainly gaining a following; retailers are asking when our mangoes are in season again each year," Ms Piccone said. "So, they are seeing our varieties and brand as a unique line that is giving our import partner and retailers some competitive advantage. Consumers are definitely buying and returning to purchase."
But COVID is creating volatility in export markets. For example, Manbulloo has needed to react to the recent situation on the east coast of Canada, which is going back into lockdown and will impact on orders and sales.
"It is a fast-changing international environment at the moment with what is happening with COVID, what is happening with pricing and what is happening with airfreight availability," Ms Piccone said. "But overall, I don't think we will be down on export volumes this year. There is definitely demand, it's just a matter of getting it there and coping with the risk and volatility in our preferred markets."
The company has just finished the two-month harvest of the Kensington Pride and R2E2 varieties in the Northern Territory this week, with picking to commence on the Rosa variety. Harvest of Rosa is expected to continue into mid-December. Picking has also commenced at Manbulloo's Queensland farms this week, and Ms Piccone has been happy with both volumes and quality of the fruit so far this season. Incidents of quality issues and rejections have been very low in both domestic and export markets.
"We're calling it a slightly better than medium volume season," she said. "The industry volumes appear to be low compared to other years and averages. Our Arriba R2E2, which is our large R2E2 and a uniquely special product at Coles, is going 'great guns'. The other initiative we have implemented with Coles is that we are using our Class 1 fruit in the I'm Perfect packs, which contain mangoes with a few more blemishes or markings on them. We are using some Class 1 in a KP 4-pack. We think based on consumer responses that provided these pre-packs has been a good outcome for the consumer, retailer and producer. Demand is looking very pleasing and is growing."
Ms Piccone says Manbulloo has not been impacted compared to most fruit and vegetable growers in terms of labour.
"We started 'worrying' early back in February 2020 to secure our workforce," she said. "Manbulloo was part of the Northern Territory pilot program bringing Vanuatu workers in, and we have also workers closely with a labour contractor who had some seasonal workers caught in Australia after borders in their home countries early in 2020. We are very grateful to our seasonal workers – many of whom have not seen their families and homes for many months. So, we are OK for labour at the moment, but we are not resting on our laurels."
She added that making sure there are enough workers in the Manbullo team to cope with all the activities including harvest is a massive effort by the Manbulloo labour team.
"It was like a miracle that the NT pilot program worked," Ms Piccone said. "That was a co-ordinated supreme effort by the Territory and Federal governments, NT Farmers organisation, us commercial mango growers and a labour provider. We literally worked together as a task force on labour for four months before the pilot group of seasonal workers arrived. I understand there is a shortage now, but we saw the problem looming and needed to work quickly to secure our workforce."
Manbulloo has been making developments with its sustainable packaging, with the introduction of recyclable paper inserts to replace the former plastic ones. It now means that both the outer packaging and the inserts are more environmentally friendly.
The company's managing director also stated that there have been more plantings to keep up with demand.
"We have planted more of all of our varieties, especially Kensington Pride, over the past 3-4 years," Ms Piccone said. "While we haven't planted any more specifically in the past six months, we are strategically trying to keep up with demand."