Winds of change in Malaysia’s durian industry as COVID-19 pushes sellers online

Winds of change in Malaysia’s durian industry as COVID-19 pushes sellers online

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While the durian season has started in Penang, most Pahang durians have yet to ripen and fall. (File photo: Bernama) 

KUALA LUMPUR: Enjoying durians in Malaysia is very much a communal affair, with friends and families gathering at open-air roadside stalls and bonding over the rich, creamy pulp nestled within the chambers of the spiky fruits. 

“I really miss eating durians,” said Christine Ang, a 35-year-old marketing executive in Petaling Jaya, Selangor. “Just like steamboat, you can’t have durians alone.”

Durian stalls have sprung to life in the Klang Valley, announcing the arrival of the durian season. Up north in Penang, the government is moving durian sellers into markets, barring the usual roadside stalls that beckon lines of connoisseurs at a time when large gatherings are frowned upon. Visits to durian farms in Balik Pulau are also not permitted. 

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In Penang, the state government has barred roadside durian stalls and moved durian sellers into markets. (File photo: Bernama) 

On Facebook, durian sellers are promoting their harvest with options to deliver right to the customers’ doorsteps. With people’s movement limited by a nationwide curb to contain the spread of COVID-19, home delivery can help overcome a drop in walk-ins. 

Even when the durian season kicks into full swing in Pahang from June onwards - after the movement control order (MCO) is scheduled to end on Jun 9 - Durian Hill co-founder and marketing director Ernest Lee does not foresee many customers opting for dine-in. 

“We will focus on the same model during the MCO, which is more on delivery,” he said. 

With consumers likely to remain cautious even though dine-in has been permitted at restaurants since early May, the glorious scenes of people crowding durian stalls and baskets of durian husks lining the stalls might not be seen this durian season. 

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“NEW NORM” IN DURIAN RETAIL 

While the durian season has started in Penang, most Pahang durians have yet to ripen and fall. But durian lovers can barely wait. 

Dong Sech Sing, the owner of Bentong Durians in Pahang, has been inundated by enquiries on the availability of durians at his orchard. 

Delivery to the Klang Valley used to constitute only 10 per cent of his business. His main focus was on visitors who dropped by to savour the fruits while surrounded by the 150 durian trees in the orchard. 

“When people come, I share my knowledge about durian planting. I looked at their faces, they’re excited, so I thought why don’t I let them know more about durians when they come and eat,” he said.

Dong has welcomed guests from as far as China and the United States into the orchard he bought seven years ago, but with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting international and domestic travel, he is expecting a sharp drop in visitors.

Among the durian farmers in Bentong, Pahang, uncertainties loom as the fruits grow bigger. Some fruits will fall in two weeks, while most still need another month, Dong said. 

“(Durian farm) owners start to feel a bit worried whether we will have outlets for these durians,” he said. As for his orchard, he would have to wait and see how to accommodate the MCO restrictions. “I think our habits have to change slightly. I’m not very sure, let’s wait and see.”

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Visitors at Bentong Durians orchard. (Photo: Facebook/Bentong Durians) 

Durian Hill, which operates a retail stall in the commercial hub of SS2 in Petaling Jaya, was offering its vacuum-packed frozen durians for home delivery during the MCO, before fruits from their Raub farms were ready this season. 

The 12 tonnes of frozen durians were originally meant for export to China, but they decided to test the local market last month and promoted the frozen delight as a durian fix to “spice up” stay-home days. 

“It’s one of our boldest moves so far, knowing that Malaysians wouldn’t want frozen durians because the fresh option is always there - a luxury we have in Malaysia.   

“But it took off, I was quite surprised also,” Lee said, adding that 80 per cent of the frozen durians have since been sold. 

“This is a new norm for Malaysians ... we can accept frozen durians as well,” he said, adding that nonetheless, Malaysians will of course still go for fresh ones when the harvest begins.

No dine-ins are allowed yet at Durian Hill’s stall, with orders packed and handed over through the doors. 

“We will see if people are really coming, then we will have to put social distancing measures in place,” Lee said. 

READ: Commentary - Farmers hold key to feeding Asia amid COVID-19 restrictions

With many turning to online platforms, sellers have to attract customers and stand out with quality products and competitive pricing. 

Durianity, a durian-themed food and beverage outlet in Puchong, Selangor, is still drawing up its marketing strategy. “When harvest begins, I predict that sales can even surpass previous years’ if our Internet strategies work,” its person-in-charge Jenson Phang said. 

“We have relied on good service, quality products and word-of-mouth all this while. Customers will return if our durians are good,” he added. 

CONSUMERS RECEPTIVE TO ONLINE ORDERING, BUT MISS THE GATHERINGS

Since the durian season began in Penang last month, Ketty Ooi Zi Qian, a 33-year-old housewife, has ordered durians a few times for her family. Some sellers opened and packed the fruits into containers, while some delivered whole fruits straight from the farms. 

Her seven-year-old son Cayden Hoe Bou-Yih, who has been an ardent durian fan since he was slightly over a year old, can finish a whole durian by himself. 

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Cayden Hoe Bou-Yih has a whole durian to himself. (Photo: Ketty Ooi Zi Qian)

But the family still misses savouring durians at roadside stalls and farms, as well as the party-like atmosphere, where fellow durian lovers wait expectantly as glove-donning stall workers open the menacing fruits skillfully to reveal the enticing yellow flesh.   

“The durians are so fresh when they come straight from the source,” Ooi recounted. “Customers coming from other states and tourists from China can’t stop praising the good taste.”

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Not being able to see the durians’ condition before placing an order might also put some durian fans off. Brian J Chong from Petaling Jaya said he tried ordering durians on a food delivery app for Mother’s Day but the fruits turned out to be just average. 

“For sure I will be wary of dining in under this current situation, but if I am desperate and if I am near the durian stalls in SS2, I will buy and bring the durians home,” said the 39-year-old marketing manager, whose personal record is having three durian feasts in a week. 

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Whole durians delivered to customers who place their orders online. (Photo: Ketty Ooi Zi Qian)

“I don’t know if I will choose delivery again, unless (the sellers) are recommended by my friends,” he said.  

Alex Tang, 53, from Petaling Jaya, has been looking forward to the durian season. He is willing to give durian home delivery a try to satisfy his cravings.

“This is the ‘new normal’, we have no choice,” the sales manager said. 

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Source: CNA/tx(aw)

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