The COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented economic crisis besides the health crisis. When most governments across the World imposed lockdowns, unintended consequences began to surface—such as loss of jobs/livelihoods, issues about food security, lack of digital access for the marginalised. In Malaysia, small businesses, especially those owned by B40 traders, have suffered a lot during the Movement Control Order (MCO) period. There are over 2 million B40 households in the country. Of this group, about 34.1 % are self-employed and run their own business. This means a significant number of B40 households were at risk of experiencing deepening poverty and inequality when B40 traders could not operate their businesses. In Malaysia, the informal sector has more than 1.26 million people comprising an 8.3 % share of total employment (2019). Government assistance has been offered to small traders, specifically to B40 communities through Bantuan Prihatin Nasionali (BPN; National Care Aid), MY30 Public Transport Schemeii ((MY30 PTS), a 30-day unlimited public transport pass), PEKA B40 Healthcareiii (a healthcare protection scheme for B40 households) or the Internet Connectivity Planiv.
To help UNDP understand the impact of COVID-19 on B40 traders, Elinna Abdul Kadir reached out to five traders at her local fresh market. Here are their stories to help us deepen our understanding of the gaps and severity of the challenges they faced in doing business.
Azmi bin Mohammed Napiah’s livelihood is solely dependent on selling seafood. He used to work six days a week in different markets, earning up to RM 5,000 a month. When the MCO began, he had to stop operating his stall to comply with the government’s Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that did not allow for night markets to open. He had no other means of income. In April, he started making home deliveries to his regular customers. His home became his place of business. He would cut and clean the seafood there before delivering them. To manage his economic situation, he had applied for RM 1,600 from the government’s BPN package. It was not approved since he was registered with Suruhanjaya Syarikat Malaysia (SSM, the Company Commission of Malaysia). He received food aid from local mosques and youth committees. As the government expanded the BPN support, he received RM 3,000 under the small trader assistance. During the MCO, he used WhatsApp as a marketing strategy tool where he shared short videos of his produce with his regular customers. This helped boost demand for his produce. Despite the challenges he faced, his customers still prefer to come in person to select their seafood. He does not see the need to further promote his products online.
Faidzli bin Zulkifli helps his wife run her home-based food business. She makes and sells murukku (a savoury snack of Indian origin), cookies for Hari Raya and kek lapis Sarawak (a layer cake). During the MCO period, he started promoting her business on social media. The main issues they faced were the high cost of procuring supplies and the loss of business when many customers would cancel orders if they thought the delivery charges were too high. They started promoting their products on social media platforms such as Facebook Marketplace. As a result, their sales doubled. But despite this, his income took a hit due to high cost of supplies during MCO. Their children also helped with cooking and packaging the snacks. He did not qualify for BPN. He was very happy to receive news that his bank was willing to postpone repayment on his loan. This gave them the chance to shift their funds to cover other expenses. They did not apply for more assistance due to unclear and lengthy procedures. He says local leaders were most helpful during MCO by giving them food aid. He feels this was still not enough for daily wage earners like Grab drivers, B40 traders and entrepreneurs.
Megat Farzurien, a fish and vegetable seller, stopped selling his produce at night markets as they were closed when the MCO began. As a result, he lost his main source of income, but still had to pay his workers which increased his financial burden. His side source of income, a food catering business, became his focus. He shifted to doing home deliveries which he promoted using WhatsApp and Instagram. He has come to appreciate the importance of going digital and will continue the digitalisation of his business. He did not qualify for the B40 traders’ loan because his annual sales were over RM 300,000. To improve the reach of B40 aid, he recommended the government consider providing B40 aid based on traders’ net profit instead of gross profit.
Wan Noridayu binti Wan Osman is a baker known for her Malay desserts. This year she was focused on preparing for the Ramadan bazaar and had invested capital early for it. Due to the MCO SOPs, she could not operate her stall at the bazaar. She notes that she faced challenges in terms of the high cost of her supplies, lack of their ready supply, and high transportation/delivery charges during the initial MCO period. Her financial issues were exacerbated by her cancellation of baking classes which she conducted and uncertain demand for her products. She received a small trader loan of RM 3,000 from BPN. Due to a television appearance on TV3’s Wanita Hari Ini (WHI) during the MCO, she gained more exposure. She gained more followers on Instagram and other social media and this resulted in increased sales for her.
Zain Anuar was forced to stop his food business when the MCO began. The food bazaars and large gatherings he was to cater were cancelled. He lost about RM 7,000 to RM 8,000 from non-refundable deposits for food bazaars and from purchases of supplies for catering events. He came up with an alternate plan to start up a fresh produce home delivery business, specialising in chicken, meat and seafood. He lacked prior experience in marketing using social media. To help him address this challenge, he turned to his younger nieces to help him navigate Facebook and WhatsApp. Other challenges included higher prices than normal of fresh produce as they were harder to source and higher transport costs. He was not eligible for some government aid programmes and missed the deadline for others. Currently, he has over 200 customers who have continued to buy from him post-MCO. He will continue using digital channels to promote his business as he has found them easier and more lucrative.
Through these stories on challenges faced by B40 traders during the pandemic, we see some similar themes emerging. These stories not only highlight some issues faced by the B40 community, but also point policy makers towards pressing issues at hand.
- At the start of the MCO, all five B40 traders interviewed suffered financial losses, and turned to the government for help. They suffered a loss of income during the initial period of MCO but were able to survive and re-start their businesses.
- Most of the B40 traders interviewed applied only for BPN, while other programmes (MY30 Public Transport Scheme, a 30-day unlimited public transport pass), PEKA B40 Healthcare (a scheme for B40 households) or the Internet Connectivity Plan) were ignored. However, for BPN, many had their applications rejected, either due to their lack of awareness on eligibility criteria or information on application deadlines.
- Though these B40 traders struggled initially with the online set-up of their businesses, they persisted and adapted to using social media to market, promote and deliver their products. Their use of WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook have helped boost their digital presence during the MCO. Some were helped by younger family members to address the digital divide between generations. This also highlights how digital education and inclusion among youth from B40 communities can empower them to initiate their own digital solutions to improve their socio-economic status in the long run.
Based on the B40 traders’ shared experiences, here are three recommendations:
- Help with adjusting to supply chain disruptions. Many traders faced the problem of procuring their supplies in the initial period of the MCO, either due to initial panic-buying or an increase in the cost of commodities during the MCO. A flexible and resilient supply chain, mapping all stakeholders along the system could help mitigate the sudden shocks caused by its disruptions.
- Better communication and outreach activities by the government is needed to beneficiaries about relief measures and packages. Despite having measures in place to help B40 traders, they were of no avail to those interviewed as they lacked critical information about eligibility criteria, how to apply, and deadlines. Better communication through local channels and leaders would help reach beneficiaries better.
- Training on social media marketing for small business owners from vulnerable communities. With the world going online during the pandemic, many small traders wanted to turn to social media to market their businesses. However, they faced a knowledge gap which prevented them from taking their businesses online. Training and upskilling them on basics of social media marketing could empower these businesses to become competitive. It is important to note that the role of youth in helping bridge the digital divide between generations would be vital.
In a post-COVID world, the digital landscape will continue to shape how small traders do business. COVID-19 is generally viewed as having a negative impact on businesses big and small. But it has also paved the way for digital transformation. Businesses need to embrace digitalisation for their operations—including e-commerce platforms promoted by the government or private sector, electronic point-of-sale systems (e-POS), enterprise resource planning and electronic payroll systems. UNDP believes in Digital Transformation Pathways to achieve SDGs, and has come up with different frameworks and resources, highlighting its importance. In light of the pandemic, UNDP Malaysia and the United Nations Capital Development Fund (UNCDF) are currently piloting a project on enhancing rural communities’ income by leveraging e-commerce and digital payments platform in Sabah. This programme is of great value in taking digital ecosystems closer to vulnerable households and communities. Going forward, developing the physical infrastructure required to support digital inclusion and equipping citizens with digital skills will be key to a socially inclusive economy for countries.
i BPN: Bantuan Prihatin Nasional or National Care Aid is the fiscal stimulus care package of Malaysian Government as part of their COVID-19 response.
ii MY30 PTS: MY30 Public Transport Scheme: Malaysia 30-days unlimited travel pass scheme.
iii PEKA B40 Healthcare: PEKA B40 Healthcare: The Skim Peduli Kesihatan for the B40 group (PeKa B40) translates into healthcare scheme for B40 group.
iv National Fiberisation and Connectivity Plan: A National plan to provide high quality and affordable digital connectivity for the well-being of the people and progress of the country.
The authors would like to thank Sumitra Sundram, Project Manager, UNDP Orang Asal/Asli Micro-Grant Facility for Conservation and Livelihood (OA MGF), Su-Jin Lim, Area-based Programme Coordinator and Yin Wei Chong, Head of Solutions Mapping, UNDP Accelerator Lab Malaysia, for their inputs and comments. We would also like to thank the following traders for the interviews: Azmi bin Mohammed Napiah, Faidzli bin Zulkifli, Megat Farzurien, Wan Noridayu binti Wan Osman, and Zain Anuar.