Small-batch producers empower local communities in Indonesia

Eighty-five percent of jobs at the processing facility are taken by women. Source: East Bali Cashews

INDONESIA has wholly embraced the third-wave trend of small-batch specialty foods – be it coffee, cheese, virgin coconut oil, or chocolate – small production companies are sprouting and tourists are taking notice.

Much care and attention are invested into the production of these “artisanal” products, and consumers get high-quality products that make use of the archipelago’s natural resources. But it’s not just the consumers who are reaping the benefits – local communities are also being roped in, lending them transferable skills and stable job security.

East Bali Cashews is one such company that aims to provide opportunities for impoverished communities, especially women. Cashew-growing communities are known to be some of poorest in the country because of infertile soil and lack of employment opportunities.

Desa Ban, in particular, is an incredibly poor area and there’s very little employment unlike the tourist-rich region of south Bali. On top of that, a prolonged dry season of about eight months a year results in shortened spurts of harvest once a year.

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In 2012, founder Aaron Fishman – who traveled to East Bali to provide public health information as an NGO volunteer – noticed the Desa Ban community who were cultivating cashew trees were shipping the fruits to India and Vietnam to be cheaply processed in large commercial operators.

As a result, the farmers get pushed further down the production chain and miss out on large revenue cuts. Farmers are also left without jobs outside of the harvest season. Witnessing this, Fishman launched East Bali Cashews – with the support of four local investors – to start producing 100 percent “local” cashews where everything from picking to packaging is executed in-house.

Fast forward to present day, the company distributes a range of cashew products nationwide and have created about 400 jobs for the Desa Ban community – 85 percent of which are taken by women.

East Bali Cashews business development manager Jonas Preisler told Travel Wire Asia: “Our main impact is bringing economic activity to that village and empowering people through employment as well as training and educating them, making sure their professional development is moving forward.”

Besides enabling sustainable long-term income for staff, the company has also helped to band the community – a bonus in a village in the “middle of nowhere”, according to Preisler.

“That has really sprung a sense of community, a sense of belonging otherwise quite dispersed throughout the area because they’re smallholder farmers,” he said.

But the company is not without its hurdles. Finding talent – for admin positions such as financing and HR – within the village is a struggle especially when they’re starting to compete with large regional MNCs.

“All the talented people want to go to Jakarta, it’s difficult.” – Preisler

Despite no direct competitors in Bali (most producers shy away from cashew processing as it is labor-intensive), increased competition from large processors is apparent, especially those with large mechanized processing facilities with thousands of employees.

But at the end of the day, East Bali Cashews gets by with great team spirit and an overarching earnestness in their objectives to empower local women. Fortunately for them, tourists in Bali have taken notice.

“And in Bali, or in Jakarta, and more urban areas, with the globalization and media, consumers are becoming more socially and environmentally aware of their consumer behavior,” Preisler explained.

“And that, of course, will spur interest from businesses to become more sustainable, more traceable, more transparent.”

Similar practices are employed by Rumadu Forest Honey, a small-batch wild honey producer based in East Nusa Tenggara.

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Founded in 2013 by Hanna Keraf and Victoria Paramitha, the company sources directly from local forest honey-hunters. Naturally, the duo took time – two years, to be precise – to engage with the community and locating potential areas for hunting.

“If you do not know the community there, it might be difficult because honey-hunting is not a full-time job. Usually, they are mainly fishermen or farmers. But during the night, some of them will go honey-hunting,” Keraf told Travel Wire Asia.

“It’s quite challenging if you do not have the skill of climbing the tree up to 20m and deal with giant bees. You need to know the community first.”

While small-batch companies are becoming more common in Indonesia – exemplified by the range of “artisanal” booths at this year’s Ubud Food Festival – there’s still a gap between farmers and enterprises.

“It’s quite difficult if the local players, for example the farmers or women, do not have the capacity to do marketing. Usually, it’s the more established companies like Javarra that have better capacity in accessing the market,” Rumadu Forest Honey’s Keraf said.

Presiler echoed the sentiment and expressed there’s still “a long way to go” for Indonesian businesses to be socially and environmentally aware.

“People maybe don’t have the luxury to make such purchasing decisions, they’re worried about more urgent matters in their lives than about sustainability,” he said.