In Sarawak’s coastal villages, the livelihoods of many depend on the sweet harvest of the nipa palm trees that grow in abundance in the slow tidal waters along the muddy banks.
Every morning, the villagers trek into the mangrove forest to collect the sap of these trees. They carefully tap the trunk of each mature plant and collect the sticky liquid in wooden containers.
This precious liquid is then turned into a form of sugar known as gula apong.
At Kampung Pinggan Jaya, some 40km away from the city, Mahli Ramli spends long hours each day in a hut near the mangrove swamp, stirring sap over a wood fire.
“We collect the sap from the palms in bamboo containers, then we boil it over a wood fire for six to eight hours, depending on how much sap we are able to collect that day.
“We boil it until it is dry and turns into a thick brown caramel liquid,” he told MalaysiaNow.
Usually, his small business can produce 30kg of sugar per fortnight for local distribution.
While Mahli is working in the hut, back at home his wife Rohana is busy managing their customer’s orders. From packaging to promotion, she handles all of the marketing herself although on busy days she gets help from her two workers.
Mahli and Rohana have been selling their gula apong products for seven years. Some of their sugar is even sent to other states like Kuala Lumpur and Sabah.
Before the Covid-19 crisis, the steady demand for their nipa palm sugar brought them about RM2,000 a month.
But once the pandemic hit, their business took a dive. With many social activities banned under the various movement restrictions, demand for sugar fell and now, they have stopped sending sugar to their customers in Kuala Lumpur.
Like many other small businesses, they had migrated online even before Covid-19, taking orders through Facebook and WhatsApp. But even with this additional platform, the money is nowhere near as good as before.
Another problem is the poor internet connection in the village which makes it difficult to run an online business in the midst of a lockdown.
During the rare times when Rohana can venture out, she needs a travel permit to go anywhere. And these days, there’s not many places to go as the majority of customers who use their nipa palm sugar for products like cakes have slashed their orders.
Lizzy Sulastrie Jeman, a single mother from Kuching who bakes Sarawak layered cakes or kek lapis, said demand for her baked goods had dropped due to restrictions on events and social gatherings.
“This year, things are tough,” she told MalaysiaNow. “Although we are able to sell online, the restrictions on gatherings have affected my income.
“Business is very slow nowadays.”
Travel restrictions have also taken a toll on the business of small traders in Asajaya who sell local delicacies including palm sugar.
Dolhan Mat, a trader from Kampung Tambirat, said his business was suffering badly.
Normally, his village which is located by the road leading from the Batang Sadong bridge to Kota Samarahan receives many visitors from other towns, especially on weekends.
“I can usually sell up to 20kg of palm sugar a day,” he told MalaysiaNow.
But these days, he can only depend on customers who have travel permits, who are few and far in between.
“Sales have dropped by more than half.”