Sweat dreams of Mbeji Sugar

Meet Pak Murto…

Pak Murto arrives sweating from his farm and carefully puts down the  pongkor – a bamboo cylinder to reserve coconut sap known as ‘nira’. This morning he climbed no less than 30 coconut trees to collect the nira-filled cylinders, replacing them with empty ones as he went.

In their modest home in Wonoharjo village, Bu Ratiyah waits for her husband’s return. Taking each pongkor, she filters the nira through a strainer and deposits the product in a plastic container. While Bu Ratiyah filters the morning’s harvest, Pak Murto meticulously cleans each empty pongkor. He stores them upside down on the bamboo rack behind their house, ready for tomorrow.

Next, Bu Ratiyah quickly pours the filtered nira into a large wok on top of a burning stove.  Her hands skillfully stir the boiling nira as she controls the flame on the humble stove, water evaporating as block coconut sugar forms.

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This daily family routine is shared by many farmers in this part of Central Java, Indonesia.  Besides farming diverse commodities such as cloves, kapulaga,  wood, fruits and herbs, the Wonoharjo community’s daily source of income is block coconut sugar. Pak Murto is one of a number of farmers of Kostajasa, a farmers’ cooperartive TFT started working with back in 2006 to help them sustainably manage their mahogany forests. We have enjoyed a rewarding partnership that has seen the Kostajasa community grow to include over 1200 farmers.

Diversifying income sources

Spotting an opportunity to help the communities diversfy their income, In 2016 TFT encouraged the community in Wonoharjo to revive a brown sugar business from a number of years ago. TFT’s Pak Ripan and Bu Wiga started to collect information on making granulated brown sugar, its supply chain and market price. They interviewed sugar sellers and farmers producing brown sugar to gather supply chain data and price comparison at every level. Learning that there might be a better opportunity for sugar granules in the market, TFT facilitated a business cooperation between Kostajasa and Cetrofarm, an agrobusiness based in Semarang.  It was agreed that Kostajasa would focus on production, while Cetrofarm handled marketing. A series of activities were designed to make the new venture a success.

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TFT designed the programme with women at the heart, with many female members. They have received training from the Health District Office about the correct safety and hygiene practices in food production, pathing the way to apply for a certificate in domestic food production industry (P-IRT). Thanks to TFT staff assistance during the product verification process by Investment and One-stop Service Agency (BPMPT), Kostajasa successfully obtained the P-IRT license.

Cetrofarm first worked on the packaging and the branding before it found the market for the sugar granules. The sugar is sold under the label ‘Mbeji’ and can now be found in the local supermarket, Gelael.

As with any new venture, patience is needed because the sales volume is not yet large and continuous, so the women still produce moulded sugar too. The plan for the production system was developed not to limit the women in making sugar, but to maintain the system developed for continuous improvement on the product quality and traceability.

The Wonoharjo community are planning for the future, including halal certification. However, as much as they hope for Mbeji to compete in the global market, the community uphold their core value of solidarity over personal business profit. Helping each other and sharing raw resources is strongly advocated among community members.

Untung

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