The Economics of Watermelons


It’s summer in Pakistan.  This is a time of the year that most people dread, for the simple and entirely predictable reason that It’s Very Hot.  The temperatures in our city don’t go much above 42 Celsius but further south it’s more like 45, and sometimes over 50 Celsius if you live in Multan or Sibi.  That is hot, especially for someone like me from England, where anything over 20 Celsius is considered hot and anything over 30 is usually sufficient to melt roads, stop trains, and cause everyone to moan.

Summer has one advantage, though: fruit.

You just can’t believe how good Pakistani fruit is.  Really, you can’t.  Comparing Pakistani fruit to the kind of fruit you buy in a Western supermarket is like comparing Monet’s paintings to the crayon scrawls of my one year old daughter.  My personal favourite are the peaches – but cherries could also be considered, and mangoes, and apricots, and I’d better stop here lest this blog turn into a shopping list.

Watermelons are good too.  People here seem to go crazy for them.  Fruit-sellers in the bazaar are usually a restrained bunch, but once the watermelons arrive they walk around shouting “Watermelons!  Fresh from the field!” and even grab your arm to convince you to buy one, as one did to me this Tuesday.

How they make any money from them is a mystery to me.  Currently they’re selling for 25 rupees a kilo, which means that a decent-sized melon of 3kg can be had for 50p.  Entire trucks filled with nothing but watermelons, dark-green globules of deliciousness, cross Pakistan from top to bottom, loaded down with a commodity with a retail price of 15p a kilo.

To put that in perspective, a litre of milk (roughly 1kg) sells for 115 rupees.  A kilo of flour costs 40 rupees.  A litre of oil is probably 80 rupees.  A kilo of lentils costs 120 rupees.  Watermelons are worth less than half of the cheapest comestible I can think of.  And that final selling price of 25 rupees a kilo is the final stage of the supply line: in order to get the watermelon from the field to the bazaar involves buying seeds, watering the plants, paying someone to harvest them, paying someone else to load them onto a truck, paying the truck driver, paying for fuel for the truck, and paying someone else to unload them – and then the salesman in the bazaar will want his cut as well to make it worth his while.

So what’s my point?  Simply this: poverty is cruel.  If any of the people in the supply line were earning anything close to a living wage, enabling them to educate their kids and buy medicine and live in a decent home and eat well and save for the future, the price of watermelons – the price of everything – would be higher.  Much higher.  But since so many people in Pakistan live perilously close to the poverty line, desperate for any kind of work that will keep the wolf from the door, they can’t afford to ask for better wages.  If they did, someone else, equally desperate, would take their job.

It’s a sad realisation that poverty actually benefits me personally.

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