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A vending machine operator, a non-profit and a startup are helping home-based businesses stay afloat

SINGAPORE — Every year since 2013, Mr Muhammad Nur Mohideen has looked forward to Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims, to earn a bit of extra cash by selling kueh (cakes), cookies, pineapple tarts and assorted baked goods.

A vending machine operator, a non-profit and a startup are helping home-based businesses stay afloat

Mr Muhammad Nur with two of his children. He has 100 boxes of snacks he ordered for the Hari Raya Puasa festive period that are unsold.

SINGAPORE — Every year since 2013, Mr Muhammad Nur Mohideen has looked forward to Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims, to earn a bit of extra cash by selling kueh (cakes), cookies, pineapple tarts and assorted baked goods.

These are ordered from Malaysia and are usually sold in preparation for the celebration of Hari Raya Puasa after Ramadan.

Now, there are 100 containers of these snacks unsold and packed in boxes on his living room floor — the result of a recent ruling made to stem the spread of Covid-19 that has affected home-based businesses.

Mr Muhammad Nur, a 53-year-old freelance supermarket promoter, has not been able to find work and he has chronic back pain. His wife is a freelance religious teacher but has not been able to conduct lessons at students’ homes since the circuit breaker regulations to limit social and business activities started from April 7.

The couple have 10 children, aged nine to 26.

Mr Muhammad Nur said: “I need the extra cash (from the kueh sales) for my children because most of them are still in school — some in primary school, secondary school and polytechnics.

“I immediately started looking for an alternative. I have to clear my stocks. If I hold them too long, they might expire. If I wait and I delay especially after the festive season, there will be almost zero demand.”

The authorities here announced last Sunday (April 26) that home-based businesses, including those dealing in food and beverage, must meet certain criteria to keep operating during this stay-home period or face a S$1,000 fine.

They have to operate solely online and they must not leave their homes in carrying on with their business. Delivery workers and their customers cannot go to their homes to deliver or collect any goods.

Home-based businesses that cannot fulfil the above criteria, such as those making and selling baked goods, will have to stop.

In Singapore, the Housing and Development Board (HDB) and the Urban Redevelopment Authority oversee the Home-Based Small Scale Business Scheme, which allows homeowners to carry out small-scale businesses such as baking operations from home. Those who do so have to abide by guidelines set down by these two government agencies as well as guidelines on food safety and hygiene practices by the Singapore Food Agency.

Finding himself in limbo and unable to sell his goods, Mr Muhammad Nur came across a post on Facebook offering people like him the option of selling their goods in vending machines.

The post was put up by Ms Amanda A Atan, 45, managing director of One Vibes Nation Vending & Franchise Management, company that has vending machines placed at Heartbeat@Bedok mall and International Plaza in the Central Business District.  

Ms Amanda said: “We decided to lease out slots in our vending machines for cheap, to help these home-based businesses get some sales. They might not be able to make the same amount of sales as they used to, but at least it is something.”

She added that after her post was published, some sponsors have come forward to pay the rent for the slots for home-based business owners, so that they can just keep the earnings without having to pay costs.

Two vending machines (far left and far right) run by One Vibes Nation Vending & Franchise Management, located at International Plaza. Photo: Amanda A Atan

Ms Amanda plans to launch more vending machines next week catered to products sold by home-based business owners, for example, frozen products such as curry puffs and samosas, headscarves worn by Muslim women, skincare products and cosmetics.

Eight new machines will be placed at Downtown East in Pasir Ris, Wisteria Mall in Yishun and at HDB blocks in Toa Payoh and Tampines. Two new machines will be added at International Plaza.

Mr Muhammad Nur is now in talks with Ms Amanda to use the vending machines to sell his snacks.

HOPING FOR MEASURES TO BE LIFTED SOON

As they fret over how to manage their unused stocks and what to do next, some home-based business owners are hesitant at the same time to take up supporting initiatives such as that by Ms Amanda. This is because they are hopeful that the restricted measures will be lifted soon.

This stems from a message by Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Minister of the Environment and Water Resources, who posted on Facebook on Wednesday saying that the Government is hoping that the health crisis improves soon, so that home-based businesses can resume their operations while adhering to safe distancing measures.

He referred to what was said by National Development Minister Lawrence Wong, who is on the governmental task force handling the pandemic, that the restrictions on home-based businesses may be eased if the community transmission numbers are brought down.

Mr Masagos said: “If we all cooperate and stay calm, it will be in time for the Hari Raya orders. We are making progress, but we need to stay the course. Let’s continue to work together to beat Covid-19.”

Ms Siti Nuraisyah, 25, who runs Chacolates SG on Instagram and who bakes and sells a variety of sweet treats, said: “I don't think I will sell off my ingredients. I will still need them for orders when the measures are lifted and it's going to be a hassle for us to go buy everything again as all the ingredients will probably be out of stock.”

Ms Juliana Ramli, 41, who is also a home baker, said: “My customers did not cancel their orders. They told me to hold on until the measures are lifted. Some of them added more items to their current orders so that my ingredients will not go to waste.”

BUYING SUPPLIES FOR THE NEEDY

Ms Yasmin Osman, 46, founder of For The People and Community, a non-profit organisation that makes monthly grocery deliveries to about 100 underprivileged families, said that she has been approached by home-based business owners who are looking to sell off their goods.  

For Hari Raya Puasa, the non-profit delivers groceries solely for Muslim families in need and the bags are usually filled with sugar, flour, rice, noodles and biscuits.

“Sugar and flour is something we include in the bags, which we know these bakers have. Even if we don’t buy the ingredients from these home-based bakers, we will still place these orders with our suppliers for the same items. So we might as well take them off their hands so that they can use the S$30 to S$40 to buy the day’s meal for their families,” Ms Yasmin said.

One home baker who gave her name as just Ms Norash, 30, sold 10kg of flour to Ms Yasmin. The homemaker and mother of two, whose husband works in the security line, said that she would not want to use “old flour” for her brownies when she can start baking again.

“It just seemed safer to sell it off than to keep it for too long. I already lost money since I bought the ingredients and cannot bake now. I have also refunded my customers. This extra few dollars will really help.”

Ms Farzana Begum, 42, the owner of Priboy Shipping Supplies, a halal provision supplier to tankers and big vessels that dock at Singapore ports, is buying over butter, flour, eggs and chocolate spread Nutella from home-based bakers to help them out during this time.

“I used to bake from home, so I know the amount of money some of them can spend and some ingredients are hard to get,” she said.

Ms Farzana usually buys such items from her regular suppliers at a very low price and even though she is paying more to buy from home-based sellers, she said that the profits she makes from sales to vessels can still cover the higher costs.

She also runs an online halal grocery store, Al-Yusoff eMart, where she hopes to buy and sell kueh from home-based business owners.

A PILOT WEBSITE FOR FOOD DELIVERY

One other person seeking to provide a service to home-based businesses is Mr Shane Ehsan Hew.

The 31-year-old car salesman is gathering a list of these businesses to feature on a website that he and his wife are creating — he hopes that the site will be the “halal version” of food delivery service providers Foodpanda or Deliveroo.

This will allow those who sign up with the site to continue doing business, he said. So far, 15 businesses have registered their interest to be on the website.

Like how the food delivery firms have their own riders, Mr Hew’s startup will have its own delivery riders, too.

Having a site dedicated to halal food items was an idea Mr Hew has been toying with for three years but due to the capital required for such a startup, he had put it on hold.

Mr Hew is familiar with running a home-based business himself and has sold a variety of products online since he was 16, including power banks and home decoration items.

“Now that this has happened, there doesn’t seem to be a better time than to get this going. We hope to start trialling it by the end of next week,” he said.

“We will also give the businesses a free month-long trial for the first month so that they don’t need to worry about paying us.” 

As for the payment scheme after the one-month free trial, he said: “It would be commission-based, but definitely not as high as what Deliveroo or Foodpanda charges. We will take a cut of the total order cost. So if a customer’s order is S$10, we may take a small portion of it. It is not finalised yet.”

Related topics

Covid-19 coronavirus Home-based business Hari Raya Puasa Ramadan business

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