Petaling Jaya, Malaysia (AFP) – When a coronavirus lockdown confined Malaysians to their homes, street traders selling durians moved their pungent produce online – and have been enjoying an unexpected spike in demand.
Grown across tropical Southeast Asia, the durian is hailed by aficionados as the “king of fruits” due to its creamy, golden flesh and bittersweet flavour.
But detractors complain of its overpowering smell, comparing it to rotting food, and it is banned in many hotels and on public transport.
The traditional roadside stalls where Malaysians have for decades enjoyed the smelly fruits were, along with most other businesses, forced to close during the lockdown.
Motorbike and car deliveries were still allowed, however, and companies such as Dulai Fruits Enterprise turned to social media to market their frozen durians.
Managing Director Eric Chan said he had been sceptical the move would work as Malaysians typically prefer fruit fresh, and a previous bid to sell them online had limited success.
But the company has seen roaring trade, with Chan telling AFP, “By the fifth day of our sales, we (had) hundreds of orders every single day.” Durians in Malaysia can cost more than RM60 (USD14) a kilogramme, and there are 137 officially registered varieties ranging from ‘Musang King’ to ‘Black Thorn’ and ‘Red Prawn’.
Durian trader Top Fruits has been selling prepared durian in sealed, 300-gramme packs on Facebook, and was making about 80 deliveries a day during the lockdown, which began mid-March.
Managing Director Tan Sue Sian said customers had come to see the advantages of having the fruit delivered to their door.
“You don’t have to worry about your car being smelly” after transporting the fruit, said Tan.
Online sales of the fruit in Malaysia have since slowed after restrictions were eased at the start of May, as durian lovers gradually returned to outdoor stalls.
Malaysia has seen a relatively small outbreak of COVID-19, recording almost 9,000 cases and 124 deaths.
Online orders are still only a fraction of business for durian traders, with the bulk going to exporters – the fruit is particularly popular in China – and local shops, but they are hopeful about future prospects. “There is room to grow, and room to grow fast,” Tan said.
Lindsay Gasik, who has written a number of books about the fruit, said it was about time that buying durians online took off.
“I think once the supply chain and logistics got into place, people realised that it wasn’t that difficult to sell durians online,” she told AFP. She said aside from making it easier for people to get their durian fix via deliveries, online selling was also exposing them to more varieties and farms.
“It isn’t just a better situation for customers, it is also for the farmers,” she said. “Selling durians online is definitely here to stay.”