My Jakarta: Emily Sutanto, Organic Rice Exporter
With the Sustainable Jakarta Convention kicking off today, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some individuals in the city who, instead of simply talking about change, have gone out and actually done something to make the world a better place.
Emily Sutanto, the international director of Bloom Agro, sat down with us to talk about how a group of farmers in West Java have revolutionized the way the country produces rice using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), and just how effective the adage “think globally, act locally” truly is.
How organic is the rice being produced under the management of Bloom Agro?
Right now, we’re the only group in Indonesia to have Fairtrade certification. We’ve also been granted an organic certification by the Institute of Marketecology.
Can you sum up what the System of Rice Intensification is all about?
SRI is basically a revolutionary set of methods that uses less input to produce more output. We expect positive results out of the system, which benefits the environment and which we believe to be productive. In Indonesia, rice productivity has increased by an average of 78 percent. Governments around the world are talking about food security, and SRI is not only good for the environment and for food security. It is also beneficial for farmers, because it will increase their income.
How many farmers are using SRI?
There are 2,333 farmers in our area in Tasikmalaya, West Java, a five-hour drive from Jakarta.
If this is such a great idea, how come we don’t see every single farmer in Indonesia growing rice this way?
Partly because in Indonesia, farmers are used to methods that have been handed down to them by older generations. They need to be shown evidence that a new method works, or that their neighbors have done it already.
For a long time, what was stopping SRI’s development was the unavailability of a stable market to receive products. The farmers I work with have long wanted to export their products; only the government didn’t do anything about it. The private sector has offered its help too, but nothing has been done. But now that our farmers are certified, they’re starting to export to the United States and the response has been positive.
The rice that these farmers produce, where does it go?
Part of it goes to the US, and we’re still expanding. We’re just new in the business. We had our first export orders in July. We’re also expanding to Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. In the US, it’s packaged under Lotus Foods.
You can’t buy the rice on supermarket shelves in Jakarta? Why?
At least not yet. When I started this project, I thought I would go into exporting, because I believed that’s how the farmers could make a sufficient premium. But people have been asking me when I will start distributing the rice locally, so we plan to start making it available in domestic markets.
Why not start at Indonesia’s high-end markets, and then expand to the United States?
In Indonesia, the public doesn’t really know what is certified organic, while the overseas market is better educated about it. Here, people think that whatever is being exported overseas is good, and only then will there be a demand locally. When I started, my priority was to give farmers a higher income, so exporting, looking for an overseas market, was the key. I can give the farmers the kind of pay that they deserve.
How does what you’re doing affect Jakarta?
I think people are more aware of what certified organic products are and, in a sense, people are more appreciative of what our farmers do. In Jakarta, society is still layered. One might still look down on farmers, but the perception is changing. What we’re doing is uplifting the image of farmers, and I think that has a positive impact on the development of our products.
Is it tough managing an export business in the country?
Yes. When I started out, there was a ban on rice exports. Indonesia used to import 30 percent of its rice, so rice supplies were not allowed out of the country. This year, however, Indonesia has been rice self-sufficient. The year before, we were one of the biggest rice importers in the world. No one was producing organic rice at the time, so I started it. There are four branches of government involved in rice licensing, and I lobbied them like crazy so that we could export certified organic rice.
Was it hard having to deal with the government?
It tends to be bureaucratic, and it’s crazy. Sometimes, they don’t even have the complete information about a certain law, and I would have to show it to them myself. There was a time when I just kept pushing them to do something.
How did you find out about SRI?
I was living overseas and a friend of our family, the former governor of West Java, told me about a group of farmers that was producing this type of organic rice that they had wanted to export, and they were looking for somebody to help them. So I went to Tasikmalaya to look into the organic rice, and I saw how they did everything, making use of compost and natural pesticides and SRI methods. I was really impressed. I thought the methods being used would be beneficial to the environment and would be able to address global hunger issues. I thought the world needed to know about this.