The ambassador who markets Vietnamese lychees in Australia
It took more than ten years and countless negotiations for fresh Vietnamese lychees to be finally granted an export license to Australia in 2015, and former Ambassador Luong Thanh Nghi played a major part.
The Vietnamese food corner in a foreign supermarket
Bringing lychees to Australia
When Luong Thanh Nghi assumed the role of Vietnamese Ambassador to Australia in early 2014, negotiations on exporting fruit to Australia had been going on for a long time without yielding concrete results.
At the time, Vietnamese coffee, pepper, shrimp, and fish were already being enjoyed widely by Australian consumers. But for fruit, Australia is a very demanding market. Fruits imported to Australia must meet not only the stringent quality and safety requirements but also strict labelling, packaging, and biological inspection rules.
Although Vietnamese fruits have been exported to dozens of global markets, including the EU and the US, it does not mean they can easily penetrate into the Australian market, said Nghi.
The country requires a risk assessment process that could last several years.
The greatest challenge is Vietnam’s limited health inspection and the post-harvest storage capacity. Before exporting, lychees must be radiated for sterilisation and an extended storage period. But at the time, Vietnam had only one radiation facility in Ho Chi Minh City.
Directly entrusted with the task of promoting fruit exports by the Prime Minister, Ambassador Nghi had multiple meetings with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Ministry of Industry and Trade, and the Vietnamese trade mission in Australia as well as Australia’s functional agencies and agriculture minister with the aim of addressing each obstacle so as to soon reach a positive agreement.
Negotiations took place at multiple levels and were even included on the agenda of high-level meetings. He recalled that in 2015 when former PM Nguyen Tan Dung visited Australia, he asked Australia to allow Vietnamese fruit exports into the country and joked that the PM himself also had to market Vietnamese fruits.
The two ministries of agriculture met several more times while the Vietnamese trade mission actively learned about the Australian market, lobbying Australia’s fruit association to work with importers as part of preparations.
Prior to the 2015 lychee season, good news arrived when the Australian agriculture ministry officially allowed the imports of fresh lychees from Vietnam. A few weeks later, the first lychee shipments from the growing regions of Luc Ngan and Thanh Ha arrived in Sydney and Melbourne to the jubilation of many.
The happiest are the lychee farmers. In the beginning, lychees were sold for as much as AU$22 per kilogram before falling to AU$14-15 but such prices were still higher than at home, Nghi said in great joy. Driven by export prices, lychees in the domestic market were also sold at higher prices, which encouraged farmers to follow international practices in their production. But concerns remain because poor health inspections and storage capacity had affected the quality of lychees and the Vietnamese brand. But it is a different long story.
After lychees, mangoes were also given a passport to Australia after seven years of negotiation. And recently the dragon fruit has also been accepted. With valuable lessons from lychee negotiations, later negotiations are expected to be increasingly streamlined, opening the way for passion fruits, star apples, longans, and rambutan.
The seafood market also holds great potential when processed shrimp and fish from Vietnam have become a common food of Australians. Negotiations began last year on fresh shrimp exports. Although no results have been achieved, there are positive signs as many large enterprises have invested in advanced technology to meet Australia’s requirements.
Vietnamese corner in Coles supermarkets
It has become a regular routine for the ambassador and Vietnamese representative agencies in Australia to promote fruits and call on Vietnamese compatriots to use Vietnamese goods. Each time a shipment of fresh lychees arrives, Ambassador Nghi would take to Facebook to announce the time and venues where they would be sold.
The latest updates on fruits were also frequently posted on the Facebook fan page of the embassy and the website of the Vietnamese trade mission. The Embassy, the Vietnamese trade mission, and the Vietnamese Business Association in Australia worked together to organise a lychee day so that Vietnamese compatriots and foreigners could gather and enjoy the fruit.
A media kit comprising video clips, leaflets, and books were quickly designed to show and instruct ways of processing lychees in daily dishes, targeted not only at the Vietnamese community but also at Asians and Australians with a passion for exotic fruits.
Nghi recalled an unforgettable memory in 2014 when lychee negotiations stalled. That year Vietnam decided to stop importing Australian fruits because of an infection. Nghi was asked by the Australian agriculture minister what he thought about Vietnam’s ban. Nghi replied that it was a difficult decision because Vietnamese consumers always wanted to enjoy Australian fruits but infected fruits could harm tens of millions of people.
The Australian minister remained silent for a moment. Taking the opportunity, Nghi went on “I have been to many states in Australia and noticed that many also want to eat Vietnamese fruits but there is no way they could buy. That is unfair trade.” At that time, a cabinet reshuffle caused negotiations to come to a standstill. The new minister promised to re-examine the evaluation process and speed up negotiations.
One time Ambassador Nghi visited Victoria and met a manager of Coles, a chain with hundreds of supermarkets throughout Australia. He told Nghi that the chain imported a large amount of Vietnamese goods through a third country and because the chain was so large, its supplies must be stable and quality assured.
In the next hour or more, the ambassador would talk about Vietnamese produce and the benefits of importing goods directly from trusted Vietnamese partners. After the meeting and many emails of persuasion, the Coles manager promised to help promote Vietnamese goods in Coles’ supermarkets.
Shortly after that a small corner labelled “Vietnamese” appeared in the food section of Coles’ supermarkets selling Vietnamese agricultural produce, seasonings, and other foods. This is something very uncommon because Australia is a culturally and racially perse country and the Vietnamese community is not the largest in the country.
While many Vietnamese foods exported to a third country have lost their brands and become Thai or Chinese, a small corner of made-in-Vietnam products in one of the largest supermarket chains in Australia is something to be proud of.
Ambassador Nghi was overcome with pride because Vietnamese products are truly competitive and have affirmed their position in the market by their quality, price, and brand, and have gradually taken their place in the global supply chain.
That is how diplomacy serves national development.