KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian durian traders are stopping at nothing to get the King of Fruit across the globe.
Durian SS2, one of the country's largest traders, is setting their eyes at dominating Singapore before moving on to their most lucrative market - mainland China. The company is already exporting durian to Brunei, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
For starters, the Petaling Jaya, Selangor-based business will launch a mobile application in Singapore and Malaysia in June 2018.
"Durian lovers can easily download the mobile app to place an order. Once an order is placed, the durian will be sent to the customer's home or office," said Durian SS2 partner Lee Chee Kong, 39.
"The customer can reject the durian if they don't find it up to mark and we will replace it with a new batch. Also, the durian will be delivered in vacuum-sealed packs to ensure customers can use public transportation and not be afraid of smell emitting from the packet.
"We have bought a shop lot in Singapore. That will be our hub," he added.
Lee said Malaysians, generally, prefer to enjoy the fruit at their stall, thus the motivation to build a two-storey building complete with seven VIP rooms there.
The building will be ready by June as well.
"Many VIPs and celebrities have visited our stall in the past. They include Hong Kong singer Alan Tan, Hong Kong director Stanley Tong, politicians and even members of the (Malaysian) royalty.
"(Taiwanese singer) Jay Chou was in town and wanted to come over too but when he was informed of the (large) crowd, he chose not to come. Guess if he had come, he would have had to spend more time taking wefies with customers than eating durians," said Lee in jest.
"The VIP rooms will cater for those who want privacy," he added.
Lee is one of three partners who run the business. His other partners are Cheah Kim Wai, 36, popularly known as Ah Wai, and their "sifu" (master) Ong Boon Heng, 58.
Cheah is a familiar face at the stall while Ong has been in the business for more than four decades.
Although Durian SS2 has been operating for the past 18 years, Lee pointed out the durian industry in Malaysia is still in its infancy, with plenty of potential.
"We can develop durian in many other ways ... durian puffs, durian ice cream, durian pau, durian pizza ... the list can go on and on."
Durian-flavoured condoms are available while Malaysian cosmetics brand Elianto Make Up, had last month revealed plans to manufacture Musang King lipsticks.
MALAYSIA'S CHAMPION PRODUCT
It's a lucrative business and many durian stalls have mushroomed across Malaysia, attracting youngsters to get involved.
And they have Ahmad Shabery Cheek, the Minister of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, to thank.
He is on a quest to achieve something his predecessors have somewhat failed to do - to get the fruit into China. Durian currently enters the mainland through Singapore and Hong Kong.
Ahmad Shabery was the brains behind the Nanning Durian Festival 2017. The three-day event, from Nov 3 to 5, saw long queues as locals came in throngs to get a taste of the fruit and its many by-products.
If all goes well, the Chinese city will soon be the entry point for durians from Malaysia. That will see the durian industry thrive even further and open the doors for other Malaysian products including pineapple, honey and bird's nest.
Singapore and Thailand have been monitoring the developments closely.
If Malaysia gets to ship fresh durian to China, prices could go up as retailers in Singapore would be forced to compete for supply.
Thailand fears this could see the end of it being the world's top durian-producing nation and its monopoly in China.
"We have found a new 'gold' and it's called durian. Our traders made an impact during the festival and I am very eager to get things going," said Ahmad Shabery.
For now we can only cater for one per cent of China's population. They (the Chinese) adore the fruit ... imagine the returns for both the traders and Malaysians, in general, if we go all out in China."
He is pushing for the notion of a durian economy.
"With 1.5 million registered trees, we are looking at revenue of RM2 billion in the next five years. And that is just revenue at the farm. We have to be mindful of the supporting factors ... durian tourism, transportation, downstream services. With all these factors combined, the durian economy will be worth RM3 to RM4 billion easily.
"It (planting durian) is no longer a kampung (village) activity."
The lucrative business could also compel the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda) to ditch oil palm and venture into durian.
"Felda started by focusing on rubber. Later the government agency ventured into oil palm. Given the current landscape, they would set their eyes on durian."
If Felda changes its game plan and with more players entering the scene, Malaysia could stamp its mark as the biggest durian exporter in the world.
"I want durian to be Malaysia's champion product," Ahmad Shabery added.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
There is certainly strong demand for the fruit.
Malaysia's worldwide durian exports in 2015 amounted to RM64.89 million and increased to RM74.39 million in 2016.
Singapore and China were among Malaysia's biggest durian importers in 2015 and 2016.
The Federal Agricultural Marketing Authority (Fama) has already targeted overseas sales of RM200 million worth of frozen Musang King and D24 durian next year, even as this year's export sales figures are being calculated.
The price of Musang King, which is favoured by fans of the fruit, should continue to rise, said Ahmad Shabery, although consumers have been grumbling that they now have to pay more for their fix.
"I want the prices of Musang King to go up. I know some Malaysians have expressed their disappointment but there are other options like D24, XO and durian kampung. A surge in price is good for the farmers.
"I want people to start thinking of the producers. One buys property or gold as an investment ... as prices of these assets will rise. It's the same with the Musang King. It's our prized asset," Ahmad Shabery added.
At the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) General Assembly earlier this month, close to 3,000 delegates were given Musang King tree saplings.
"It was to get the members to see how it feels like being a farmer ... and with the prices of durian going up, how it feels like having such an important asset," Ahmad Shabery, who is an Umno Supreme Council member, added.
THE CHINESE INFLUENCE
Landowners and traders admitted they have been approached by investors from China wanting to buy their orchards.
It was widely reported in June that Chinese nationals have been aggressively hunting for land in Raub and Bentong in the state of Pahang. The two towns are known to produce the best durians in the country.
Lee said he was offered "millions of ringgit" to sell his business.
"My partners and I will not sell (the business). There is plenty of potential and we have big plans for Durian SS2," he said. "This is only the beginning."
An average of 3,000 tourists from China head over to Bentong or Raub daily.
Even eco-resorts there including glamping site Tanah Aina Fahad and the luxurious Tanah Aina Farrah Soraya serve their guests durian upon request.
"Visitors, especially those from China, always request durians. It is a must if they visit our resorts, said Tanah Aina resorts owner Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil.
"The guests love our organic durian which we plant at our orchard," she added.
Malaysia's International Trade and Industry deputy minister Ahmad Maslan had in November said durian and durian-based products are among the most-searched for items on China's e-commerce site Alibaba.com.
DURIAN ALL-YEAR LONG
The mobile app from Durian SS2 is not the only modern approach to selling durian.
Durian is a seasonal fruit but through advancements in agriculture research and technology, the fruit is now sold all year long.
Its pulp is frozen while a wide network and calculated approach will see durian of various species - Musang King, D24, Tracko, Kim Hong, Udang Merah, XO, D88 and Black Thorn - on the shelves throughout the year.
"These days, there is no such thing as no durian," said Lee.
"We have a good network of suppliers ... Raub, Bentong, some areas in Johor and Penang. We are open 365 days a year and have between 4,000 and 5,000 durians on our shelves a day. We also freeze some of our durians."
Lee said the durian business has created plenty of job opportunities.
"Farmers need more workers, traders need more people to sell their products. If Malaysian durian gets to enter China, our manpower will double.
"It's no longer a kampung (village) or old man trade. It's a thriving business and it's going to soar for several decades," Lee added.