Malaysians grow green fingers amid coronavirus shutdown

Ivy Sam of organic farm Homegrown Farms in Semenyih in the southern edge of Kuala Lumpur. PHOTOS: MICHAEL SIMON, HOMEGROWN FARMS

KUALA LUMPUR - When Malaysia went on red alert from mid-March as coronavirus cases surged, most people were forced to stay at home and many lost their jobs.

Amid the boredom and despair, some Malaysians quickly sprouted green fingers.

Some began growing edible plants as a hobby, others to provide their households with fresh vegetables.

According to a report in May based on a survey conducted by market research company on Malaysians' spending on non-essential items during the movement control order (MCO), 86 per cent of respondents said they bought gardening tools.

Under the MCO that was imposed from March 18, most people could leave their homes only for essentials like groceries, food and medical treatment.

Ms Ivy Sam of organic farm Homegrown Farms in Semenyih in the southern edge of Kuala Lumpur, said: "We have had huge interest from people asking for farming workshops and almost daily calls from people with land who want to try farming."

"We had a webinar recently with over 100 people tuning in with questions," she told The Sunday Times.

The 0.4ha farm which Ms Sam, 41, and her 51-year-old husband Michael Simon built up in the last five years has also seen an increase in the number of orders for their aquaponic balcony system, which lets users grow leafy greens and rear fish at the same time, specially designed for those living in apartments or small houses.

"Our orders quadrupled in the first week of the MCO and our order books are full till the end of the year," she said.

Meanwhile, advertising executive Ahmad Akmal Affan ditched city life in June after being unemployed for three months, and returned to his kampung to put his green thumb to good use.

"I couldn't afford to pay rent, let alone buy groceries, so I went back to my parents' house and started farming in our compound," he told The Sunday Times.

"There are also vegetables like kangkung, tapioca and potato growing wild, and sometimes, I go fishing near the paddy fields where you can net gourami and catfish," said the 34-year-old who lives in Kampung Santan, a village in the northern state of Perlis.

"This way, I won't be a burden and we can sustain ourselves during this difficult time," he said.

The government has said 520,000 Malaysians lost their jobs in the first seven weeks of the MCO.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian economy, the third largest in South-east Asia after Indonesia and Thailand, is expected to shrink by 3.1 per cent this year compared to a 4.3 per cent expansion last year.

Growing greens can be a satisfying hobby that helps lower grocery bills, as housewife Noor Idayu Mohd Idris, 33, found out.

"I started gardening on March 25, a week after the start of MCO. I was bored and didn't know what to do with my son as we couldn't go to the playground."

Housewife Noor Idayu Mohd Idris' son Qaayed carries their harvest of choy sum grown in their garden during Malaysia's movement control order. PHOTOS: NOOR IDAYU MOHD IDRIS

She now has over 30 types of plants in the small garden of her terrace house, including bok choy, kale, basil, okra and mango.

As all the plant nurseries were closed during the partial shutdown, she bought everything online from soil to seeds and pesticides, spending around RM70 (S$23) including shipping.

She said she saves more than RM15 a week on her grocery bill now as she does not need to buy vegetables.

Mother-of-five Amanda Sanusi, 42, also started growing her own greens during the MCO.

She has grown pandan, lemongrass and other edible plants, and her family is now attempting to grow rock melon, mango, cucumber and chillies from leftover seeds.

"Sometimes, when you buy herbs, it comes in a big packet but you only need one or two leaves, and then you forget to use the rest and it gets wasted."

"If you plant it yourself, you take what you need for free and there is no waste," she said.

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