World News Day 2020

Connecting farmers with consumers during Covid curbs

DINA MURAD/ The Star | Updated on September 27, 2020 Published on September 28, 2020

Food entrepreneur Erik Ong used his digital marketing expertise to help farmers get their products directly to consumers during the Covid-19-induced supply-chain disruptions

How resourceful Malaysians are working around supply-chain disruptions to ensure that food does not go waste

Malaysia’s movement control order (MCO) to contain the spread of Covid-19 (commonly referred to as ‘lockdown’) had unintended side effects: food wastage owing to supply-chain disruptions. But some Malaysians are doing what they can to ensure that food continues to be accessible, and that wastage is limited.

One such effort has been led by food entrepreneur Erik Ong, who is assisting farmers by connecting them directly to consumers in Kuala Lumpur via the newly-launched e-petani Malaysia website (epetanimalaysia.com), which he set up with his business partner, May Teh.

"The Kuala Lumpur-Selangor Fruit Farmers Association asked if I can help the other farmers sell their produce because the wholesale markets and their other networks and supply chains were affected by the MCO," says Ong.

Ong explains that farmers were struggling during the first few days of the MCO because people were afraid to come out and work, and transport services were not plying because there was a lack of clear communication regarding the MCO.

The government has since clarified that food supply sectors and their chain of essential services can operate as usual.

"Now, things are slightly better and the trucks can come through, but there are still a lot of people who are not willing to come out to buy food supplies or open their shops," says Ong.

Since restaurants are closed, there is an excess of some supplies, like tomato, lime and coconut.

Tapping tech expertise

Ong’s business – he runs a durian stall – grew mainly through social media and digital platforms. Now he is using his expertise in digital marketing to help farmers deliver their products.

In just a week after the ‘lockdown’ was enforced, Ong and his business partner launched the website; it went live on March 29.

"The response has been very, very good. People are afraid to come out so we now deliver it to them directly from the farmers," says Ong, whose produce delivery service charges a flat fee of 15-25 Malaysian ringgit (or about Rs 265-445) depending on where customers are in the Klang Valley area in Kuala Lumpur.

"Every day, I receive calls and messages from farmers and aggregators about what items they have. I then post it online on community pages. People place their order on Facebook or through the website," says Ong, who works with 10-12 fruit and vegetable farmers from Cameron Highlands, Selangor and Perak.

Role of NGOs

Alvin Chen, co-founder of What a Waste (WaW), which works to reduce food wastage, reckons that enormous amounts of food was being wasted owing to the MCO.

"There is food waste throughout the whole chain -- from farmers to wholesalers to resellers to food banks and right up to consumers, who were resorting to panic buying," says Chen, whose NGO advocates for food sustainability.

Chen and his team of food rescue specialists redistribute unwanted but ediblefood to needy communities, and have been working on overdrive during the MCO period.

Under normal circumstances, households are the biggest generator of organic waste. However, due to the MCO, farms and wholesalers accounted for much of the wastage, Chen explains.

To ensure that food is distributed equitably, Chen believes that social organisations can complement the duties of government agencies, but with strict adherence to safety protocols.

"These NGOs are the entities on the ground everyday, and they can point out the coordinates of every needy community," he says.

Social workers should be classified as essential workers because their tasks are akin to frontliners, reasons Chen. "It should be recognised that social workers are assisting, if not anchoring, the relevant government agency/department to ensure that the needy and vulnerable are kept going in this unforgiving time," says Chen.

 

He sees two major negative implications from food wastage throughout this quarantine period: landfills will see a pile-up and, the use of single-use plastics will grow exponentially.

Many social welfare groups were initially caught off-guard by the directive for NGOs to channel their food donations through the Welfare Department owing to the MCO. Subsequently, however, the government allowed these groups to distribute food to the needy but with improved guidelines to ensure safety during the pandemic.

One particular food-distribution episode is illustrative of the clinical efficiency that characterises their operation.

Towards the end of March, a lorry-load of vegetables arrived at Kebun-Kebun Bangsar (KKB), a Kuala Lumpur community urban farm. "We guess they couldn’t sell or distribute the vegetables," says KKB volunteer Ng Seksan.

Because the produce was fresh and edible, KKB invited people who live around the area via Facebook groups and social media channels to come and take the vegetables for free.

"We also helped distribute it to nearby shelters and children’s homes. A few took the vegetables and distributed it in their own neighbourhoods," he says.

Some vegetables grown at KKB and eggs from the farm are also occasionally given out to the needy, soup kitchens and refugee communities.

The article originally appeared here

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Published on September 28, 2020
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