Weathering the storm to sell durian

  • Metro News
  • Saturday, 20 Jun 2020

Chow (in blue) explaining about common diseases that can affect durian trees to a group of visitors at his farm prior to the MCO which was enforced in March.

IS THE King of Fruits still reigning supreme during the Covid-19 pandemic?

That is the question on the minds of traders and exporters, especially with June being the start of durian season.

StarMetro spoke to several durian sellers to find out how they are adapting their business model during the movement control order (MCO).

Lockdown restrictions

Durian farmer, trader and exporter Stephen Chow, 38, supplies durian to both local and international markets.

He has orchards in Bentong and Raub in Pahang.

“With the MCO in force, it is difficult to go from state to state.

“We sell fresh and frozen durian, including wholesale to the local market,” he said.Besides durian, he also sells other fruits like nangka madu (honey jackfruit).

Chow, who was previously involved in other agriculture businesses, has been in the durian industry for 13 years and exports the fruit to Hong Kong, Macau, China, Singapore and Thailand.

“Demand has increased after the lockdown was lifted or relaxed in most of those countries,” he said.

However, while there is demand, closing the deal has proven challenging because foreign customers prefer visiting the orchard to view the fruits before placing orders.

“With travel restrictions, they cannot come over and see the fruits.

“We have meetings via teleconference to update foreign buyers. Some even ask for live videos of the farm.

“Some customers hope they can come over after MCO.

“They have yet to place their orders, so I don’t know how we will fare this year,” he disclosed.

Chow said the pandemic and lockdowns did not affect exports as “borders are always open for fruit exports.”

“However, if we have a choice, we prefer to sell locally as the risk is less. When we export fruits, we need to go through Customs. With the pandemic, it is more stringent now.”

He added that there was more competition now in terms of online sellers.

Demand for by-products

This is a bad year for the durian industry because of the Covid-19 pandemic, PHG Ever Fresh Food (M) Sdn Bhd managing director Lye Wee Tin said.

He has been selling durian for over 20 years, and 40% of the fruits goes to the local market with 30% to 40% exported to Singapore, 10% to China and countries like Australia and the United States make up the rest.

“Even the economic downturn in 2018 was not as bad as 2020. This is a tough year.

“The market is affected due to MCO as roadside stalls were previously not allowed to operate.

“We saw a 30% decrease in demand,” said Lye who has a 16ha durian orchard and also sells fruits to stalls and factories for manufacturing downline products.

“The Covid-19 situation is currently under control but it has affected spending power, not just for durian but other things as well.

“Sellers have to sell at lower prices,” he said.

On the positive side, he observed that demand for durian products had increased.

Even the response for online sales has been rather encouraging, he said.

Business affected

Durianity manager Jenson Phang said business had been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Durianity has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a stall that opened in November 2017.

“It is our third year in the market and we have a durian farm in Sungai Ruan, Raub, with 95% of the trees grown there comprising Musang King,” he said of his 8ha farm.

Durianity has a shop in Puchong for customers to dine in.

“We also export frozen durian, mostly to China.

“Our aim is to promote quality Musang King from Pahang.

“We want everyone to be able to appreciate the fact that the fruit comes in many delicious forms.”

Phang said their business had been greatly affected by the pandemic.

“We used to sell frozen durian at our shop during the off-peak season so people could enjoy Pahang durian any time of the year.

“However, demand dropped due to the pandemic and we had to close shop for a few weeks.

“We then reopened to provide online service and delivery to help bring in more sales,” he added.

Increase in delivery

DurianMan SS2 director Cheah Kim Wai said delivery orders increased by 80% during the MCO.

“Some 80% of our customers dine in, while regulars opt to pick up the fruits.

“We were worried that MCO might affect business so we decided to offer delivery promotions.

“We have our own delivery service and also use delivery companies to send the fruits to customers,” he said, adding that the durian is vacuum-packed.

Aside from the MCO, another challenge for the durian industry was the drop in harvest.

“This year we have seen a drop of 25% to 30% because of rain in January,” said Cheah who gets his fruits from Pahang and Penang.

“We promote durian to China, Hong Kong and Macau and their feedback is that the fruits are cheaper this year.

“When customers from China place requests, they order up to 50 tonnes.”

Cheah said the price of one Musang King was five times that of Thai durian.

“Once the durian supply in Thailand is low, they will opt for fruits from Malaysia.”

He said if demand from China shot up, it would drive prices up.

“This is not good news for us as locals are our main customer base.

“We want local customers to enjoy durian at affordable prices.”

Cheah said locals liked bitter variants like Musang King while foreigners preferred sweeter fruits.

“Blackthorn is from Parit Buntar and it is sweet, not as bitter as Musang King.

“There was a Hong Kong celebrity who ate Blackthorn and since then, the demand and price for that variant has increased,” he noted.

New sellers on board

All is not doom and gloom for the industry.

In fact, the MCO may have had a positive outcome.

Chow said, “It is good for the retail market as there are more platforms now, especially for business-to-business (B2B) and the e-retail sector.

“There are more traders entering the market too.

“For example, some tour companies and tour guides had turned to selling durian and other products because they were unable to continue their normal work during the MCO.

“This is good for suppliers like us because we can supply to more business entities.

“We also join forces with online portals like B2B.

“When new sellers come on board, they have their own contacts and this opens up the market further,” said Chow.

Consumers also stand to benefit from the current situation as they can get their supply online and view customers’ feedback before placing their orders, he added.

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