KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysian farmers have gone online to sell their produce instead of throwing away tons of fresh fruit and vegetables every day after Malaysia imposed a Movement Control Order (MCO) in March to limit the spread of coronavirus in the country. Several farmers told Arab News on Thursday that they have reported a steady increase in sales.
“During the MCO, our sales became much higher than before as everybody is going online now. A lot of people do not want to go to the supermarket and would rather receive their groceries at home and pay a small delivery fee,” said Michael Simon, an organic farmer.
He added that farmers were facilitated by customers who were looking for fresh and organic products and didn’t want to queue up in supermarkets due to social distancing rules.
The pandemic led to a major change in consumer behavior for many Malaysians who, before the lockdown on March 18, would throng to open-air wet markets where rows of neatly lined stalls would lure buyers with boxes of locally harvested fresh fish, fruit and vegetables on display.
There were spoilt for choice, with growers unboxing freshly plucked brinjals, tomatoes, cabbages, snake beans and other Asian greens by the dozen.
But with the MCO in place, several farmers from Malaysia’s hilly regions said they were forced to throw away tons of freshly harvested vegetables.
“Farmers in places like Cameron Highlands were severely affected because the middleman ran the supply chain,” Simon said. By going digital and eliminating the “middleman,” he was able to sell fresh organic vegetables directly to consumers in Klang Valley near Kuala Lumpur through a weekly subscription system.
The dilemma was not unique to farmers, with fishermen around the country reporting similar issues as well. Some said they had begun to store the surplus fish while adding to the pile with the catch of the day, every day.
“Before the MCO, many customers and food business operators would buy fish directly from the fishermen, but all of that changed during the lockdown,” Andrew Han, an activist and filmmaker, told Arab News.
To help fishers make a living during the lockdown, Han and other local activists from Penang state in northwest Malaysia introduced them to e-commerce portals where the fishermen discovered a new way to do business, by selling directly from store to door.
“We tried to help the coastal fishermen in Penang by marketing their products on social media and facilitating delivery,” Han said.
For the purpose, they would “advertise the catch of the day on their Facebook page or WhatsApp group” where customers could scroll through the list before placing their orders online. These would then be sent to the buyers through local delivery services, for a small fee.
“Most of the coastal fishermen are older folks. What we have shown them is that it is possible to go digital and important to have a social media or online presence during these times,” Han said.
Dr. Serina Rahman, one of the founders of Kelab Alami (KA), a grassroots environmental community-based in the southernmost state of Johor which she founded with her husband, former fisherman Shalan Jum’at, agrees.
She said that the lockdown “forced them to adapt to online marketing and sale of fish.”
“We would advertise the seafood daily on Facebook and WhatsApp, and customers would place their orders. It was challenging at the beginning as we had to figure out all of the mechanics from scratch,” she said.
“On top of that, we did not have any internet line at the jetty as our place is nearer to the Singapore border, and we faced a lot of issues,” she added.
However, they soon managed to overcome the challenges of selling online and even organized a “Big Fish Bailout” to hand out fish for the homeless and needy during the lockdown period.
The online charity-drive lasted a few months, where the public would “sponsor” larger fish which the fishermen were not able to sell to regular customers and donate these to the most vulnerable communities.
Despite the government relaxing the lockdown rules and implementing a Recovery MCO since June 15, farmers and fishermen said they now prefer to sell online. The convenience of buying and selling on e-commerce platforms, coupled with a high internet penetration rate – at 85 percent in 2018 – has led to an uptick in online shopping for groceries, with many locals choosing to buy products directly from farmers, instead of supermarkets.
According to Export.Gov, Malaysia boasted 16.53 million online shoppers or about half of the country’s population in 2019, with a majority preferring to use their smartphones, resulting in a spurt of e-commerce and online marketplaces.