Father-and-daughter teams are nothing new. From big names such as LVMH’s Delphine Arnault to Isha Ambani of Reliance Industries and Zara heiress Marta Ortega, there is much to be said about being able to successfully transition a quality family relationship to forge a successful business partnership. In this vein and on the home front, Sukhi Wei has just launched the Raya Collective with her father, former REDtone Telecommunications managing director Datuk Wei Chuan Beng.
Sukhi turned her sights to the world of food after clocking up two years of experience with the Boston Consulting Group. The enterprising 25-year-old founded myVeganuari, a movement that encourages Malaysians to go plant-based for the first month of the year, as well as supports several food and sustainability initiatives by NGOs such as the Good Food Institute and Thought For Food Southeast Asia. On turning to the King of Fruits, Sukhi says, “Dad had always wanted a durian plantation. But there are so many players in this market already, so we positioned Raya Collective to be unique, where the provenance of the fruit is the most important component.”
What sets Raya Collective apart is that it works only with selected smallholder farmers of Musang King durian (or Raja Kunyit as it is referred to in Kelantan), purchasing fruit from some of the oldest trees around at premium to market prices. “We want to recognise and show our deep appreciation for their decades of hard work and to value durians that are farmed sustainably,” she says.
With durian already being the country’s latest agricultural success story, following in the footsteps of rubber and palm oil, Sukhi gives due credit to the existing exporters who have built a good name for Malaysian durians globally. Moving forward, however, she believes durian business owners need to think long term. “There’s a need to find a balance between the traditional, sustainable way of farming and knowledge-based modern agriculture. We need to preserve the sanctity and biodiversity of the ecosystem of which each tree is a part. That is why we don’t have a fixed target per season. We just do our best to bring what is available, from vintage trees, to the discerning durian connoisseur.”
For a fruit that is holding its own in the category of culinary indulgences, on a par with truffles and other gourmet delights, the Kota Bharu-born Chuan Beng, 56, says parallels were drawn with the world of wine. “Durians, specifically Musang King, can have many more micro differentiations. Take Bordeaux, for example. There, you’d find each vineyard with its own history and wines with distinct characteristics.
“A connoisseur experiences through his senses: sight, smell, savouring the nuances. Durians right now are graded by size and shape, which is less relevant to their actual taste and texture. The age of the trees, in fact, plays a big part in determining the taste and quality of the fruit, not unlike grape vines. So, we aim to shake this up, drawing attention instead to the fruit’s provenance, the faces behind its cultivation and, thereafter, the actual experience of eating it.”
Raya Collective takes its name from Pulau Raya, acknowledged to be the birthplace of the Musang King cultivar while the word “collective” was added to reflect the company’s people-centric values. “Raya’s purpose is to reestablish the connection between man and food,” say the father-and-daughter team.
“Our initial motivation came after learning about the plight of farmers, many of them in their 70s and 80s. Kelantan’s Musang King durian is harvested only once a year, unlike other varieties. The harvest season is also short — one or two months — and while prices are typically high at the start of the season, the farmers often find themselves scrambling to sell off the surplus during peak time. So, we at Raya wish to work closely and grow with our smallholder farmer community. Our fruit is sourced only from farmers with a deep sense of connection to the land. Also, each tree is grown naturally, free from pesticides and harmful chemicals.”
At present, only Musang King is offered, although there are plans to introduce other premium kampung varieties from Kelantan “for durian lovers who are more adventurous”, says Chuan Beng. “The durians are just starting to drop now — so, hurry! The main season is between July and August and our first deliveries will start in the first week of July.”
To further heighten the experience, Raya Collective has teamed up with award-winning Penang restaurant Gen to create two gourmet refreshments that come complimentary with every order above RM288 (or equivalent to three packs and above). “We chose to work with Gen, as we share a similar appreciation for local provenance and cultural heritage. These two creations are designed to alleviate ‘heatiness’”, shares Sukhi, referring to the belief that durian is a yang food versus traditional yin foods, such as mangosteen, “and include a calamansi and sour plum salt mix, a nod to the local habit of drinking salt water after eating durian, as well as a handmade kaffir lime and mint candy to freshen one’s breath.”
“We want the durian experience to extend beyond the fruit,” says Chuan Beng. “Our team has put immense thought into the end-to-end customer journey: from receiving the package, learning about the fruit’s origins, finding delight in it and then the post-durian refreshments.”
Visitors to the website will also be pleased to learn of the added services of a durian concierge. “This offers a window to our customer experience team,” says Sukhi. On plans to grow the business further, both father and daughter acknowledge wanting to take things “one step at a time”. “There is still a lot to learn this season. For us, it is not about the volume of fruit but how we tell the story and create a unique, memorable experience that makes the person feel connected with his food. We believe Kelantan has a lot to offer, in terms of agriculture, so there may be more orchards, or even other crops that fit Raya’s ethos,” says Sukhi.
This article first appeared on Jul 5, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.