Zakir Hussain – Straits Times
Jakarta. Fifteen years ago, Aldi Haryopratomo turned down an Asean scholarship to study at Raffles Institution, annoyed that although he had topped his middle school class he had to repeat a year and start at Secondary 3.
“I also felt I didn’t want to be out of touch with Indonesia so early on,” he adds.
As it turned out, staying at home a little longer paid off. When he was 25, he came up with the idea for a social enterprise that would help poor small traders in his country make a little more money.
By the time he turned 30 this year, he had graduated from Harvard Business School.
Equally impressive was that the microbusiness outfit he helped found, Ruma, counts 10,000 mom-and-pop shops across West Java as its business partners, and has dreams of expanding across Java, then Indonesia.
Aldi was also named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum this year — even though Ruma — which stands for “rekan usaha mikro and a,” your micro business partner — is not quite your conventional business.
It is a network of small business owners who have gone beyond selling snacks and sundry goods to also selling prepaid mobile phone minutes and utility vouchers, and collecting information on purchases for companies.
But it did not all start from scratch for the elder of two sons of a civil servant father and architect mother who grew up in a middle-class housing complex for civil servants in Cibubur, West Java.
After studying computer engineering at Purdue University in Indiana, Aldi became the sixth employee of San Francisco-based budding online lender Kiva, which raises small loans for poor people in developing countries.
In that role, he traveled across Southeast Asia evaluating projects in need of funds.
“I was on a motorbike with a map, and people thought I was a scammer, getting money from a computer,” he recalls.
The stint made him see people needed more than easy loans.
“I saw that although it was really good to help people, it’s not enough ultimately to increase their economic activity for that person to move up the poverty demographic,” he tells The Straits Times.
“You need the business idea and the skills.”
A chance meeting with Grameen Foundation director Sean De Witt in 2007 sparked the concept for Ruma.
The foundation is linked to microlender Grameen Bank. But it would be a while before a product was found that would best help small entrepreneurs in Indonesia.
Aldi returned to Jakarta where he joined the Boston Consulting Group, and travelled to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for a project on mobile money.
It was there, watching how people moved money around in a very rudimentary way with bodyguards toting AK-47s — “I owe you, you owe me” — that he saw potential for an electronic payment system in rural areas back home.
In 2009, he formally launched Ruma, starting off with a “business-in-a-box” package for small traders in rural and semi-rural areas to sell prepaid mobile phone minutes that users would otherwise have to travel to a larger town to get, and for which shopkeepers would have to place down hefty deposits.
It proved a winning formula, for 90 percent of Indonesians use prepaid plans.
“We found that for a small shop that used to earn 18,000 rupiah ($1.9), their income would increase by about 60 percent a day,” he says. “That’s through minutes alone.”
Aldi has also marketed Ruma’s network as a source of market intelligence for household goods giants like Danone and Nestle to better find out what products low-income consumers prefer and adjust their offerings in a country where the vast majority of purchases are done through these small shops.
He believes Ruma’s survey findings are also more accurate, because the shopkeepers are already known to respondents — “it’s like asking a friend.”
“It’s one of the things where you can make a lot of money and help a lot of people at the same time,” he says, noting that shopkeepers keep a share of the profits.
Ruma has 120 staff, 70 of whom are out in the field, and staff include former employees of top consulting firms.
Aldi has been married to a management consultant at McKinsey since 2008. They met while at university and have no children yet. But his wife, an Indonesian, used to work for J.P. Morgan in Singapore, and they lived in a rented Farrer Park flat for six months.
In the coming months, he is planning to get seven-inch tablets for every business partner so customers can watch videos and advertisements on it, and that can also help track sales for companies.
Ruma is also advertising job openings in rural areas through its network and via SMS — think a JobStreet for the lower-income, called Kerja Lokal, so rural residents do not all head to big cities for work.
Aldi has big ambitions for Ruma. He and his staff have already mapped out possible locations in Central and East Java where they can branch out in the next few years.
“We want to be the biggest chain of general trade shops that can connect thousands of companies to millions of people all across Indonesia, maybe even in other countries,” he says.
“And I believe technology’s the only way to do it.”
Reprinted courtesy of The Straits Times