Albertus Weldison Nonto
Ika Suryanawati and Fleming Wong have successfully grown their organic farm business producing high-quality food for babies. In the breathtaking mountain area of Cipanas in West Java stands a wooden house with bamboo walls, centered on a plot of land boasting two small rice mills as well as buildings for an office and warehouse.
In another corner, three buffalo nod lazily while chewing grass and, at the other end of the field a tank stands processing bio-gas from the animals for cooking. It’s also a popular place for kids to play soccer in the afternoons.
“We have been dreaming of this, and it is slowly become real. This is zero-waste business,” Ika Suryanawati and Fleming Wong, founders and owners of Gasol Pertanian Organik, told GlobeAsia.
The two former professionals have turned entrepreneur, successfully capitalizing on the foundations of traditional agricultural systems which have been part of Indonesia’s cultural legacy for hundreds of years, creating a prospective business to meet growing demand for foods free of chemicals and pesticides.
Their organic agricultural estate in Cianjur does good business producing grains and fruits for the market, with a concentration on foods for babies and children.
The couple controls a total of around 25 hectares of land, growing local varieties of rice, beans, corn and bananas. In the process, they are prolonging the life of crop species which have already vanished in many parts of the country since the arrival of the “green revolution” and its hybrid species 45 years ago.
“We took some time to research and discuss with local people the local varieties that used to be grown. Most farmers here grow imported seed, which has a shorter life cycle,” says Ika, who worked for a coal-mining company before starting out in business in 2004.
Old varieties rescued
Now traditional local rice varieties such as beureum seungit, ketan cikar and pandan wangi, which made Cianjur famous as a rice-growing area in the past, are thriving once more. Some modern varieties produced by local seed companies such as aexibundong have also proved successful.
Now well past the teething state of establishing a business, the company is continuing to expand its planted area and has established collaboration with a number of parties. At the Cipanas site, Ika has successfully set up a modern plant across from a rice field to process grain into a powder which the company markets as the baby food supplement Gasol.
Free of chemicals, it contains proteins and vitamins and has come to the attention of many pediatricians, who have been recommending the product to mothers. “Business-wise, producing and selling the powder creates more value than selling the raw material,” says Ika, noting that her company now sells hundreds of thousands of boxes of the powder every year at high-end modern retailers such as Ranch Market and Kem Chicks, baby shops and independent retailers.
The success of Gasol has been noted by local farmers, some of whom have become converts, joining the endeavor in partnerships which allow Ika and Fleming to control the production process from first steps through to harvest. Like many modern farming systems, organic farming requires a rigid standard of operations to help maintain production levels and quality.
At first, the two partners found it difficult to introduce new systems but now that task has become much easier as news of their success has spread by word of mouth. “Technically when farmers shift from the usual system to organic methods, productivity declines for more than two years because the soil needs to adjust naturally,” says company farm manager Nurochman, another former veteran of the mining industry.
“After three years productivity rises again while production costs tend to become lower,” adds Nurochman. Once the soil becomes stable it can produce more rice or other commodities. In his experience, each hectare can yield between six and seven tons of rice, similar to fertilizer-based systems.
Ika and Fleming believe that their hygienic production process and transparent standards will help boost the image of their product, and with it sales. Fleming says they also understand that some people have doubts about the ‘organic’ claims of many producers. He welcomes anyone to visit the Cipanas site to look at the organic farming methods and watch the milling of the company’s rice. “I welcome anybody to see all our system from beginning to end,” he says.
With more than 700 resellers throughout the county, Gasol has carved out a market with middle-class consumers. Brand awareness has entrenched itself in customers’ mind. This success has led to interest from potential foreign entrants to the business, with a number of overtures to Gasol. “We aren’t willing to take on foreign investment for the time being, not until we are sure our system works well,” says Fleming.
Don’t force Mother Earth
Fleming and Ika believe that a degree of environmental destruction has already occurred due to business over-expansion. This means that the land can no longer produce in a natural way. Their own enterprise will not destroy the land, but helps to recover its natural rhythms.
“Leave Mother Nature to produce crops in a more natural way and create balance among micro ecosystems,” Fleming says on a philosophical note. He adds that working in organic farming makes life fun, although it may not produce fantastic profits.
A part of that fun, notes Nurochman, is working with the buffalo to plow and prepare the land instead of using tractors. “The land becomes softer and crops grow easily. We don’t use chemical fertilizer or even pesticide, so the cost of production will decline over the long run.” GA