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How to Turn 52,000 Poor Farmers into Prosperous Entrepreneurs: Lessons From an Indonesian Social Enterprise

The company connects the farmers’ products with leading retailers and restaurants around the world
By Lorenzo Kyle Subido |

Javara is an Indonesian social enterprise aiming to preserve the country’s food biodiversity by empowering its indigenous farmers



Mention Indonesia and perhaps the first things that come to mind are its tourist attractions such as its beaches and temples. Others may mention Jakarta and its reputation for being one of the worst cities in the world in terms of traffic congestion, while you may hear a few quips about Indonesia being one of the developing economies to watch in the world.


Very few will mention Indonesia’s agricultural sector, which contributed around 14 percent of Indonesia’s GDP last 2016. In its latest agriculture census report, the Central Statistics Authority of Indonesia revealed that there were 26.1 million farmers in Indonesia last 2013, around a tenth of its total population. However, this presented a notable decline in the 10 years prior, as Indonesia was home to over 33 million farmers in 2003.


One of the main players addressing this issue is Javara, an Indonesian social enterprise aiming to preserve the country’s food biodiversity by empowering its indigenous farmers. Through its wide network of partner retailers and restaurants in Indonesia and around the world, Javara both promotes Indonesia’s rich variety of food and ingredients as well as gives opportunities to over 52,000 rural farmers by training them to become entrepreneurs.


“We provide the widest collection of heritage food in Indonesia, which we work [to produce] with indigenous farmers from across the archipelago,” said Helianti Hilman, founder and CEO of Javara.


Today, Javara retails over 750 agricultural products ranging from ingredients such as spices and sugars to food like noodles and coconut chips, which it exports to over 21 countries. Hilman has also received numerous awards for her work, having been named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst & Young in 2013 and the Schwab Foundation in 2015.


Some of Javara’s most popular products originated from farmers who faced difficulties in selling their harvests



In a presentation to Filipino guests in the company’s restaurant in Jakarta last January 10, Hilman shared how she grew the business into one of Indonesia’s leading social enterprises. Here are four lessons every business owner can learn from her story:



1. Solve Problems Rather Than Chase Food Trends

In her presentation, Hilman recounted the origins of some of Javara’s most popular products such as its artisan salts and vegetable noodles, and all of them originated from farmers who faced difficulties in selling their harvests and products. She noted that each of Javara’s products reflected a farmer’s problem that the company worked with the farmer to solve.



“When you see these 750 products, it's not that we are the busiest or most aggressive,” said Hilman. “That's how many problems that are faced by the farmers. Because every time there's a problem, we will come up with a solution of creating products to solve those problems.”


She added that this was Javara’s main difference from other food businesses, in that its products reflected more than what the current trend was in the industry.


“Normally, [businesses in] the food industry will cook into the trend, will cook into the demand,” described Hilman. “But we work based on problems. Every time farmers have problems, we come in and try to develop a product as a solution.”



2. Empower Farmers By Turning Them Into Entrepreneurs


While Javara has uplifted the lives of many Indonesian farmers, Hilman stresses that her company does not simply give the farmers resources and sell their products. Instead, Javara gives them the necessary tools to become rural entrepreneurs, holding them to the same standard as their city counterparts.


Javara promotes Indonesia’s rich variety of food and ingredients as well as gives opportunities to over 52,000 rural farmers by training them to become entrepreneurs



“Our business model is to create rural entrepreneurs which will produce products to the standards that we want them,” explained Hilman. “We always tell [our farmers] that if you want to be a part of this system, do not settle for less. We have to come up with the best products that we can.”


She added that part of teaching the farmers to become entrepreneurs was ensuring that they were always putting their best foot forward when it comes to creating products. By instilling a business mindset in its partner farmers, Javara not only helps them make a living through farming but also pushes them to see themselves as more than just a farmer in need.


“We don't want people to buy our products because they felt sorry for the farmers, because they just want to help,” said Hilman. “They have to buy it because they love the product, because it tastes good, because it's healthy for them. And only by then we can have a sustainable market for the farmers.



3. Go Global If Local Market is Not Initially Receptive

When Javara started selling its farmers’ products in 2008, it wasn’t getting much traction in Indonesian supermarkets. Hilman attributed this to how the Indonesian consumers saw Javara’s products as inferior to its foreign counterparts.



“When we started to sell our product domestically, no one cared,” shared Hilman. “Because when they're talking about organic products, everybody wants to get the imported one, not the local brand.”


In 2011 Hilman tapped market opportunities abroad and started exporting to retailers and restaurants around the world. It proved to be a success, as by 2014, 90 percent of Javara’s sales came from its exported products.


“It was only when we started to be recognized as an exporter that we started to gain the recognition domestically,” said Hilman. She revealed that in 2017, the split between Javara’s exported and local sales had become more equal, with 55 percent coming from exports and 45 percent from local consumers.



4. Look at the Big Picture

The declining number of Indonesian farmers proved to be a big issue for Javara, which not only constrained the company’s long-term business plan but also served as a large obstacle toward its goal of promoting Indonesia’s food biodiversity. This pushed Hilman to prioritize not only giving its partner farmers a sustainable livelihood, but also making their jobs feel more rewarding and fulfilling.


“Our business model is to create rural entrepreneurs which will produce products to the standards that we want them,” said Helianti Hilman, founder and CEO of Javara



“Right now, Indonesia is losing 500,000 farmers every year,” revealed Hilman. “So for us, it’s important to build their pride and dignity, because if the pride and dignity is there, they will be standing tall, regardless of how big their businesses are.”


For Hilman, the recognition her company and her farmers has been getting both locally and internationally has done a lot in building up their farmers’ images. Because of Javara’s push to “make farming sexy,” the enterprise has opened it up to younger people who were not interested in the industry.


“With the approach that we take right now, we’ve managed to shift the composition of the farmers that we work with,” said Hilman. “In the beginning, every farmer that we worked with was above 65. By now, 40 percent of them are below 35, because they consider themselves more as an entrepreneur rather than just a simple farmer. And that makes a lot of difference.”






Lorenzo Kyle Subido is a staff writer of Entrepreneur PH. He was a guest of AirAsia Philippines in Jakarta

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