Position to promote Malaysian Durians

In the last article we outlined the present situation of Malaysian durian and discussed about how to build durian into an industry. Some readers asked me further to discuss a strategy forward. In this piece, we integrated some key available information and outline a possibility:

Positioning as a premium fruit

I reiterate a reminder earlier; let’s not treat durian as a commodity; let’s promote durian as a high end scarce premium fruit. Everyone knows that the positioning as a commodity will only diminish value. Today quality of any product is a must; we need to strive to build uniqueness. Let me quote some information from a big data report published on China’s Fresh Market Product site:

*Thai durian sells for RMB40 per kg in China. but farmers only receive RM4 Ex farm, only 10% of the retail price. Another known fact to many is the Thai Durian industry is no longer run by Thai national.

*Chinese consumers have discovered Malaysian durians, they like our durians. In China, first durian became popular in the southern region; and slowly it spread to the central and now people in the north are getting interested. The Chinese Agriculture Academy predicts; the consumption of fruits among the Chinese will continue to rise; reaching 93 kg per capita by 2024. Tropical fruits are popular among Chinese consumers, and durian is the most loved tropical fruit.

*In view of stable growth, and no immediate increase in supply in the short run, all new plantations are not expected to have high yield in the next 5 years; we can safely expect prices to hold within this period. The question therefore is; how do we position this prized produce? How we build the industry surrounds its positioning. Regardless of whether it was the Chinese who discovered Malaysian durian or our traders have discovered the China market; we see a growing potential for Malaysian durian in China.  Within the durian planting and trading community; government and private, there is a need to build a consensus on its positioning, and instruct how we develop the orchard fruit into a high value industry.

*Big Data revealed buyer of durian in China are young Chinese women in the age range of 25-30. There is a Thai Brand (泰蓝), they use Musang King durian from Malaysia and processed them into 150 gm ready to eat packs, like ice-cream or yogurt packs.  These little packs retail for RMB79 online. At this price level, and selling online there is sufficient margin to make the effort worthwhile. This is one success story we can make reference to.

*Another known fact is durian tend to develop strong loyal fans; their return purchases are high; in fact, no fruit enjoyed this kind of status with their fan base. These durian fans are ever enthusiastic about durian, there seems to be a magic here, durian fans not only seek out the best durian, they tell each other and act as goodwill ambassadors. I watch durian farmers enjoying themselves so much when fans show delight in eating their fruit. There is a certain happy energy associated with this fruit. In the age of social media today, we can build the database of durian fans to enable future direct communication and promotion.

*We also know that Malaysian durians are not suitable to be harvested before they are fully ripe; hence this doesn’t make the fruit suitable for long distance export route to foreign markets. Research has been done on plucking the fruit earlier; but the time window is insufficient to make export of fresh fruits viable. The viable option today is using IQF deep freeze processing technology where the goodness of the fruit can be fully preserved. We need to educate export markets; that frozen durian is as good as fresh. Admittedly when you have to keep your durians in refrigeration; hiding them in fridges as some may say, it is hard to promote and sell. However, we may just have to turn this feature into an advantage, that we have deliberately selected this way as naturally ripen durians have nutrients at their maximum; and in line with consumers’ quest for natural food today; with concerted effort, we may be able to create a new taste.

Durian’s Blue Ocean of Scarcity

If the present supply is scarce, how would we market this precious fruit and get the value we deserved? If we go by the traditional export route; through wholesale, retail; a product of RMB200, may have to allocate 50% of this value to the logistics and distribution in the chain. Admittedly there is no super profit here as the distributors have to cover risks of spoilage, handling mishaps, cost and distribution of profit of all players in the value chain. But in this ‘more of the same old ways’ the growers do not stand to rise with the tide. So what other options do we have?

Let’s discuss the following strategy:

  • Build durian tourism

Instead of working so hard to find to export the product and share the profit with others; why not we think about putting our effort to attracting more tourists coming to Malaysia to eat durians. Why not we develop a strategy for durian tourism? Globally there are very few attractions that can draw large crowds flocking to a location and create value for the local economy. Where fans are willing to spend money and visit the place to enjoy the unique experience. The Japanese Sakura Hanami is one example. If anyone wishes to see the sakura or cherry blossom flowers in full bloom in spring; you just have to visit Japan at the right time.  Every year from March to May; almost 6 million tourists visit Japan, and hey spend an average of RM6,000 per capita during their stay. This is called unique locational advantage; it is unique and special, not available anywhere else.

For the Malaysian durian, the situation is the same. If you would like to taste fresh durian; you have to come to Malaysia at the right time. Chinese tourists to Malaysia numbered 2 million in 2016; average spending is RM3000 per capita. We can build on this foundation.

i)Develop 10 special durian tourists site throughout the country; work in partnership with state governments.  In these selected sites, build public infrastructure to support large tourists’ arrival; ensuring safety; convenience and comfort. Today’s young tourists no long comes in group tours, many armed with their mobile phone, rely on the web to guide them to their desired places. Just like Japan builds and updates the Sakura viewing site, we need to build a comprehensive Durian Tasting site; where farms are listed; directions on how to get there, Transportation (Uber to be recruited as partners) and bookings for durians can be made. Durian tasting packages can be developed in partnership with these farms, selling through MAS and Air Asia; as well as homestay or hotels on the selected sites. We then work with distribution agents in China to pre sell these tours; selling durian coupons which will be honoured by the receiving farms and retail establishments in major tourist cities. This way we can ensure maximum visitors arrival to enjoy the harvest season.

ii)The Department of Agriculture (DOA), farmers’ organisation and FAMA, together with Tourism Malaysia and state tourism bureaus; can work together to beautify and build interesting visitor centres in the selected durian parks. Visiting farms, with large crowd is not a good idea as we have considerations for bio-security.  On these visitors centres we build creative structures; ones that is tropical in character, promotes good air flow, clean and comfortable; surround them with beautiful local fauna; build gardens around them. These visitors’ centres can serve both tourists local and foreign as well as the local community. They can serve as the regular Sunday market, and during harvest season, they are turned into durian fairs. Let the designers go to work, build covered structures with easily maintained toilets, wash basins and rest benches. Be friendly to old people and the handicapped, and of course lots of parking.

iii)Build an Annual Durian Festival:  Each year when the northern hemisphere goes into summer, we pick a couple of day to launch a big festival and concert. Just like the highly acclaimed Rain Forest World Music Festival, it has now become a permanent features of Sarawak Tourism. Started in 1998, with only 300 attended the first festival, after 20 years, the festival is attended by over 20,000 fans from the world over.  Durian is a key attraction for Tourism Pahang, Johore and Penang, for example. How can we use Durian as the main theme, but bring together other folklore, art, cuisines, music and dance to celebrate the diversity while we celebrate durian harvest? How do we assemble the very best from around the region to present to the world? 

Room for Growth for Chinese Tourists

There is still room for growth for Visit Malaysia tourism among Mainland Chinese visitors. Thailand for example hosted some 9 million tourists in 2017, bringing in almost 6 billion bath (750 million ringgit) in tourism receipts. The charm and magic of the Musang King durian can be enlisted to help in the promotion; we need to build a systematic, sustained promotion campaign; with specific targets and objectives, sustained effort to build to critical mass, say in 5 years bring this number up to 10 million. We can also mobilise the clan networks of the Malaysian Chinese in China; they can help pre-sell durian festival coupons. Let’s try to imagine; if we grow 2.1 m visitors to 10m, 50% of them like durian, and each one spends RM1000 on durian (both enjoying the fruit while here as well as bringing back with them); Chinese are willing to spend on food; this amount is not impossible. This can translate into 500 million in revenue; and we are keeping all these here at home.  Then the 5 million tourists start sending photos and visuals on their We Chat to their friends; say each send 10; this means we reach 50 million at no costs of our own! If each of them sends a further 10, you would have reach 1/3 of the Chinese population!  So we have to develop beautiful scenes where people will take photos that will go viral. This suggestion is not theoretical, we implemented this through a Pahlawan Volunteers initiative on Visit Malaysia Cyber campaign in 1997, the effort received commendation from the Prime Minister and Tourism Minister.

When the Chinese have an unforgettable durian tasting and culinary experience in Malaysia, they will share with friends in their circle, and the positive spin will elevate the status of durian and Malaysia. We ought to make full use of the “fans-economy,” this way we keep much of the revenue at home; benefiting grower, traders and the multiples of inbound tourism help to spread the durian ripples into the other economic sectors.  Remember we mention Thailand’s experience at the start of this article, we should not take that route.

2.Building online sales and assemble the big data on durian fans.

Here the nation needs to come together with one mind and one strategy; the government, fruit dealers, growers must unite to protect the good name of Malaysian durians. We only bring the best durians to the market; and this reputation must be strictly protected, nothing is more important than the integrity of your brand. There is durian dealer in Thailand who is so strict with its quality standards; out of over 100 durian farms, only one can meet their standard. But this insistence pays off, consumers are willing to pay more, as much as 33% on top of the regular price to get to quality fruits. This further affirms our plead to all; produce good quality fruits to get higher value.

A central durian web(Durian Central) and mobile APP be built; so each tourists can find their own way and the APP also serves as the tour guide. All durian related products and services can be listed here, and let the visitors rate their experience online. The entire Malaysian durian industry must be disciplined and work hand in hand to build a sterling reputation, the brand is Malaysian durian.

  1. Develop downstream derivative applications, use durian as an ingredient

Unlike other tropical fruits, durian has an extra-ordinary property that lends itself to be used as an ingredient in a range of derivative applications. China seems to be more advanced in the derivative applications; from the durian pancake dim sum at at the Guangzhou tea houses, western pastry, cakes, tarts, puffs, pizza, deserts, ice cream to moon cakes; the possibilities are unlimited. Although there is a wide range of these offerings today; they only use a very small portion of our durian production; not more than 10% of durian harvested go into this sector. Nevertheless, this is an important value add for the industry.

4.Frozen Premium Fruit as Gifts

Everybody knows the difference between Malaysian and Thai durians; however, we should stop comparing them side by side. Online, some traders are still doing a comparative push for their products. Admittedly at the early stage of the industry; this is a common feature; traders are trying to attract the attention of existing durian fans and direct them to Malaysian durians; but long term, if we want to avoid the fate of RMB40 per kg, we must change course.

The Unique Comparative Advantage of Malaysian Durians:

People know and yet don’t’ quite know; why is Malaysian durians far more superior than other durians? Why with so much experience behind them, Thailand cannot produce the same premium stuffs that we do? Do we know why? My observation of the quality of tropical fruits from the equatorial region revealed the answer; It is the equatorial climate, stupid.

Being close to the equator gives us our comparative advantage, a uniqueness that cannot be duplicated elsewhere. The equatorial region is located 10-degree north and south of the equator. The latitude position of Malaysia (4.2105°N), Thailand (5.8700° N), Vietnam (14.0583° N) ,Philippines (12.8797° N) and Indonesia (0.7893° S). Although much of Southeast Asia are in the tropical climate with summer all year round; but within the 10-degree zone of the equatorial region; the sun’s rays directly reach the vegetation, and there are 2000 hours of sunshine a year. The sunshine promotes photosynthesis and sugar making, hence most tropical fruits have high brix or taste sweet.  There is plentiful rainfall, between 2500 to 3000 mm per year.  Long term, Indonesia can and will pose as a greater competitor for Malaysia durian, not Thailand, Vietnam or the Philippines. Sumatra, Java and large tracks of land in the Borneo island of Kalimantan, with their rich soil, big land mass and hard working locals, they hold good potential in durian cultivation.

Frozen durian for export, take the path of premium gift sales

Here in Malaysia we wait for the durians to ripe and fall naturally. We don’t pluck them ahead to make time for the global distribution chain. This is because the nutrients in naturally ripen fruits are the best; and we uphold this practice to produce premium fruit. Today’s modern IQF freezing technology can help us preserve the goodness in ripen fruits; and cold chain distribution can help us get our product to consumers. This is a unique selling point of Malaysian durian and we must keep it. So when durian reaches the destination markets, they need to be sold as premium, and in China’s case, often used a very precious gift item.

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