It was an unusual agricultural venture: a shipping container on the edge of a parking lot, packed with vertically stacked shelves where hydroponic lettuce, sprouts and other vegetables grew under LED lights. And the timing of its first sales — during the early days of Malaysia’s coronavirus outbreak — seemed less than ideal.
“We weren’t too sure if it would take off,” said Shawn Ng, 28, a co-founder of the vertical farm, the Vegetable Co., in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s largest city. “But somehow the market kind of played in our favor.”
As in-person shopping wanes during the pandemic, Mr. Ng’s operation is one of many small farms around the world that are selling fresh produce directly to consumers in ways that bypass brick-and-mortar grocery stores. In Malaysia, many people have also been avoiding crowded “wet markets,” where fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as meat and fish, are sold from stalls.
“I was very ‘kan cheong’ during the lockdown period,” said one of Mr. Ng’s regular customers, Ayu Samsudin, using a Cantonese word for anxious. “Having fresh vegetables delivered to your doorstep was such a relief.”
Revenue at the Vegetable Co. grew 300 percent in its first few weeks, and the shipping container is now approaching production capacity because of high demand, said Mr. Ng’s business partner, Sha G.P.
The coronavirus took off in Malaysia in March, after an Islamic revivalist group’s gathering there became one of the pandemic’s biggest vectors in Southeast Asia. Since then, the country of about 32 million has weathered the outbreak relatively well. As of Thursday, it had reported fewer than 10,000 confirmed cases, according to a New York Times database.
But even though most businesses have reopened after an initial lockdown, many urban Malaysians have maintained their online shopping habits, said Audrey Goo, the founder of MyFishman, an e-commerce platform whose sales have roughly doubled.