JAVARA: Keeping indigenous food and culture alive in Indonesia

The enterprise seeks to support farmers in rural Indonesia.

The range of products of JAVARA includes sugar, rice, salt, and beans, among others. © JAVARA

Indonesia is known for many things: the Danish architectural heritage, the archipelago’s 17,000+ islands, the Muslim-majority population and the famed Nasi Goreng among many others. What most people do not know is that Indonesia’s agricultural sector is also one of the richest, with the sector contributing 14 per cent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

With the knowledge that Indonesia has a wealth of agricultural and indigenous resources, Helianti Hilman started an enterprise with the aim to support these communities by providing artisanal and organic food and products — from sugar and rice to salt and beans and baskets. She called it JAVARA. “Javara means champion because we are bringing champion products from champion farmers,” explains Hilman.

At the moment, JAVARA collaborates with more than 52,000 farmers who are able to produce over 700 products. The brand has also been able to provide for around 300 retailers as well as export to 19 countries. JAVARA is also not solely focusing on production — the organisation has also started community capacity building efforts to sustain the development of the communities they serve.

When asked about what exactly nudged her to create JAVARA, she says, “[It is through the] interaction with indigenous farmers who exposed me to the amazing food biodiversity heritage of the Indonesian archipelago.”

“Since I love to cook and I’m a strong proponent of nutritional food, it would be sad if such a heritage is forgotten or goes extinct. And, I believe the best way to sustain these forgotten food ingredients is by creating a sustainable market/consumption,” she adds.

INKLINE talked to Helianti Hilman to know more about the operations behind JAVARA, the challenges they face, and what she hopes for the enterprise to become.

INKLINE: Can you course us through how the enterprise works — from choosing which farmers and artisans to work with to creating and marketing your products? 

Helianti Hilman: Our starting point is to work with farmers who still retain the food biodiversity heritage. Having local champions is key to the success of bringing forgotten food ingredients to the market, and our approach is that we are a company which nurtures rural entrepreneurs.

Whenever we are given reference of a strong local champion to be nurtured as a food entrepreneur, we go to do an assessment on the food biodiversity potentials as well as to get to know the champion and to give them some [action based] test cases. If we find ingredients with market potential, our R&D team will look into what products we can develop based on those ingredients, that would be sexy for the market. And, once we develop the products we will do FGD (market testing by giving samples to chefs, retailers etc.).

JAVARA artisans also produce baskets that are usually used as home decor or organisers. © JAVARA

If the response is good then we will go and train the rural champion to produce it and help them with the investment and working capital, and our compliance team will work through the market compliance (food safety, quality, certifications etc). Then we will build branding around the products and producers, as we are focusing on single-origin traceable and ethically traded products. In some occasions, we also facilitate them to participate in trade shows, overseas.

I: Why was it important for you to retain traditional Indonesian techniques as well as old recipes for your products? 

H: We are focusing more on retaining the food biodiversity heritage. We do retain some traditional techniques if they contribute to better taste, unique propositions or better nutritional values. We also work on old recipes if we see it fits with the market trends.

I: What would you say was the main challenge when you started Javara? 

H: Educating the market as nobody knew about these heritage food biodiversity ingredients, so there is no market validation for bringing it to market.

I: Now that it’s a decade old, what new challenges are you facing and how do you address them? 

H: Now, [since] what we do is trending, our challenge is to scale up the whole supply chain. We created Javara Academy – School of Food Artisans, to groom and nurture more rural/grassroots food entrepreneurs.

I: It was mentioned on your website that you also teach ‘youth farm-preneurship.’ Can you expand on this? 

H: We believe that the scaling up of our mission requires the nurturing of young people to go back to farming. But, with an entrepreneurial angle as it will give them more resilience and exciting dynamics in solving their problems, challenges and limitations.

“Unless we make farming a sexy and hip profession, we will have no future and no youth going back to farming/food production,” says Hilman. © JAVARA

I: How do you wish to scale your enterprise?

H: Scaling up has to be balanced throughout the supply chain, from the producer side to the market side. From the producer side, we do it via Javara Academy – School of Food Artisans, while for the market side we will scale up by expanding our retailing outlets (store, restaurant and cooking classes, a concept we called Javara Food Hub – Shop Eat and Learn).

I: What steps are you taking in that direction? 

H: We already launched Javara Academy last year and have created a training centre and a pilot on Flores Island, and we are aiming to set up 25 centres across Indonesia in the next five years. As for the retailing, in the last few years, we have started our signature stores, and this year [we are] expanding into restaurants and replicating it in other cities.

I: What has been the most satisfying thing about running Javara? And what do you hope for it to become?

H: When I started, all of our partners were over 55 years old. Seeing that our partners are now getting younger and younger is really fulfilling. I want Javara to become a platform that enables food artisans from remote and rural areas to bring champion food biodiversity products to market, not only in Indonesia but also overseas.

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