KUALA LUMPUR: At a swanky sales gallery, smartly dressed representatives were on hand to greet visitors and usher them in.
Lining the walls of the bright premises were glossy displays featuring the company’s business plan for a durian orchard. There were aerial photos of the orchard and durian varieties cultivated, while a flat screen TV played videos of potential investors visiting the site.
Those who turned up at the sales pitch on a recent Saturday were eager to find out more about the investment scheme and to assess the project’s potential and expected returns.
"Durian is 10 times more profitable than palm oil," the presenter gushed.
For a minimum investment of RM10,000 (US$2,388), investors were guaranteed a return of RM7,700 beginning the fifth year, with expected annual increases.
Such investment schemes have mushroomed in Malaysia along with the growing fame of Malaysian durians abroad, especially the Musang King variety. The thorny fruit have found their way to the hearts of connoisseurs not just in Singapore, but also in China, despite their exorbitant price tags.
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On Thursday (May 30), it was announced that Malaysian companies will be allowed to export frozen whole durians to China, in what is seen as a significant boost to the industry. Prior to the announcement, only durian pulp and paste could be exported to China.
The potential surge in demand has attracted aspiring growers to enter the fray, and some of them rely on crowdfunding to pull off their projects.
From small growers to property tycoons and companies currently investing in palm plantations, everyone is interested to get into the act.
In order to reap bountiful returns, they tap into technology to manage their farms and employ stem-grafting techniques to cultivate Musang King durians.
The government, meanwhile, is planning to encourage durian growers through training programmes and financial assistance.
PAHANG, THE DURIAN BELT
Pahang, the third largest state in Malaysia, is known for its mountains and rainforests. It is now making its name as the durian belt.
Once covered by native vegetation and palm trees, the land is now dominated by durian trees and saplings protected by black netting. Slopes are terraced to maximise arable land area.
One of the newcomers to the durian scene was Mr Ong Boon Hin, who bought a 13.8ha plot of land at Sang Lee, Raub, to start a durian orchard and homestay with an investment of a few million ringgit.
"I believe Pahang has the best environment for durian growth, especially for hill-grown durian. Durian trees here are widely believed to yield more fruit, and the durians are not only larger; they also have great texture and taste," he said.
The 61-year-old fruit wholesaler explained that while managing the trees on slopes could be a challenge, the terraced slopes contribute to equal distribution of water, which means higher survival rate for the trees.
A typical tree takes around five to seven years to mature.
Mr Ong was well aware of the uncertainties - weather and diseases could affect the growth of the durian trees - but he was optimistic about his investment.
"I don’t think it is risky to run a durian orchard, simply because there is a rising demand from China. It has a 1.4 billion population and only 1 per cent has tasted durian so far," he said.
Durians also contribute to tourism receipts to the state, with local and international visitors arriving to savour the creamy delight. Bentong, which is about an hour’s drive from Kuala Lumpur, beckons throngs of durian lovers during the fruiting season.
Its Member of Parliament Wong Tack hoped people would associate Bentong with durian, "just like Japan with sakura".
Mr Wong, who has just returned from a visit to the Shaolin Temple at Henan, China, shared an anecdote: the stoic-looking temple abbot Shi Yongxin has a soft spot for durians.
"When I told him I came from Pahang, the land of Musang King, he was delighted because he is a big durian fan," he said.
DURIAN STEM GRAFTING PREFERRED
Malaysia produces 300,000 tonnes of durians annually, and almost a quarter of the total production consists of premium durians such as Musang King.
Durian expert Lim Chin Khee noted that the active conversion of agricultural land to durian farms began earlier this year, with smallholders of rubber estates and oil palm plantations nationwide keen to convert part of their land to plant durian trees.
"Conversion was happening quickly because listed companies have jumped on the durian bandwagon by investing in durian farms. This is an indicator that this industry is booming," he said.
To cater to market demand, existing durian orchards have switched their durian variants to Musang King and Black Thorn. Between 2012 and 2019, the wholesale price of Grade A Musang King almost quadrupled from RM9 to RM32 per kg, durian farmers said.
Durian stem grafting is an important technique aiding the rapid expansion of the orchards. As the survival rate of Musang King saplings is low, growers will plant kampung durian saplings first and then use the stem grafting method to transfer Musang King stems onto the saplings.
Farmers with extensive experience in durian stem grafting are highly sought after. Mr Tan Kim Yok, 74, a Pahang-based durian farmer has travelled to Sabah, Sarawak, Johor and Malacca, and as far as Indonesia, to lend his magic touch to the durian saplings.
His clientele is mainly big corporations.
"New orchards will purchase kampung durian (village durian) sapling priced at RM3.50 per unit to start the orchard. In comparison, one Musang King sapling costs RM20," he said.
DURIAN ORCHARD WITH A TECHNOLOGICAL EDGE
Durian cultivation is a niche sector that requires know-how and expertise to successfully grow the trees and reap fruits of high quality.
Durian expert Mr Lim said most orchard owners tend to grow durians based on their experience, instead of collecting data on the trees.
While the quality of durians depend on weather, type of fertilisers, soil conditions and farm management, the main challenge faced by growers is an inefficient irrigation system, he added.
Mr Lau Boon Chong, who purchased his 121ha durian orchard at Kampung Sempadan, Benta in Pahang, last August, is clearly ahead of his time.
He capitalises on technology to manage his orchard of 5,000 trees, assigning QR codes to each tree for data and record keeping. An internal durian information management system and a smartphone app were developed to systematically monitor every tree.
"This is called ‘chain of custody’. If a tree has problems, a worker can scan the QR code, take a photo of the tree, type the problem and send to the central system," he explained.
The QR code is also an important marketing tool for consumers to get to know the source of their durians, Mr Lau added.
Equipped with 12 ponds to ensure sufficient water supply, his farm uses the fertigation system, a process that combines fertilisation and irrigation.
"We use high power pumps to pump water from the ponds, and the water is mixed with fertilisers before it is delivered to the trees.
"Our orchard is divided into sections of 200 trees. Each section receives an equal volume of water and fertiliser with this comprehensive fertigation system, as hundreds of trees get watered in 10 minutes," he said.
GOOD PROSPECTS IN THE INDUSTRY, BUT THERE ARE RISKS TOO
The future seems bright for durian farmers.
Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Minister Salahuddin Ayub said durian export is expected to reach a total of 22,000 metric tonnes by 2030.
"Durian export is the new source of wealth for Malaysian growers, as evidenced by the steady increase in durian prices since 2000, especially the Musang King variant," he told CNA.
Also casting a positive light on durian farming is economist and Sunway University Business School's Professor Yeah Kim Leng.
He opined that the current rapid development rate of durian orchards and the expected increase in the supply of durians are unlikely to dim the business prospects, due to the relative scarcity and large supply-demand imbalance.
"Because of rising population and growing affluence, the supply of high-quality food is insufficient to meet current and projected demand.
"This is particularly the case for premium products such as the branded Malaysian durian varieties that have found insatiable demand among the wealthy Asians," he added.
However, the durian growing industry is not without its risks. Prof Yeah cautioned that overuse of pesticides and chemicals might result in food safety scares and consequently market collapse.
Mr Salahuddin noted that among the potential risks in durian farming are poor harvest due to climate change, pests as a result of poor agricultural practices, price fluctuation caused by economic factors, and counteraction from competing countries.
However, these could be anticipated and therefore reduced.
"With the latest technological advancement such as the Individual Quick Freezing (IQF) method, the shelf life of durians can be extended for off-season use. This will also help to stabilise the supply and pricing of durians all-year round," the minister noted.
While there are no specific guidelines on regulating durian plantations, Mr Salahuddin said the Department of Agriculture (DOA) encourages farmers to certify their orchards with Malaysian Good Agricultural Practices (myGAP).
The DOA also supervises and regulates the application of agricultural chemicals, and conducts regular analysis for pesticide residue in relation to safety and hygiene, he added.
There are also concerns about the environment.
Ms Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil, the president of environmental non-governmental organisation Peka Malaysia, called for tighter regulations on land conversion to durian orchards.
"Any form of conversion and the usage of land, be it oil palm plantations, rubber estates or durian orchards, will cause significant risks to the biodiversity and climate change unless it has been managed sustainably with proper adaptation measures," she said.
TIPS FOR POTENTIAL INVESTORS
Meanwhile, for those interested in durian investment schemes, durian expert Mr Lim has a few tips. "They need to ask these questions: do the companies have sufficient expertise? Do they have credible experience and knowledge to manage the crops?
"Check if they have a proper irrigation system. Are they preparing for the El Nino phenomenon?"
For companies that promise a good return in five years, they should deliver tree growth between 6ft and 12ft in a year. "This should be the benchmark," he said.
Mr Lim added that adhering to a standard operating procedure (SOP) would ensure the successful cultivation of durian.
"The SOP will provide information on the amount of water needed for a durian tree, the amount of fertiliser needed for a tree and when to put the fertiliser. When there is a change of weather, what action needs to be taken? If there is a pest outbreak, what should growers do?" he said.
As for the durian farmers, the agriculture ministry plans to promote collaboration between small farmers and big corporations through strategic partnerships to ensure a level playing field.
A mentor-mentee system, hands-on training programmes, and financial assistance are among the initiatives in the pipeline, Mr Salahuddin said.