Cleaner tempeh, for health and profit


August 1, 2012

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lindsay Hamsik/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Ribiyanto makes tempeh in a factory that is piloting a cleaner, more hygienic working environment. Photo: Lindsay Hamsik/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Lindsay Hamsik/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Subsidized equipment leases are designed to get rid of outmoded equipment that emit harmful gases. Mercy Corps recently calculated that carbon emissions from tofu and tempeh production in Indonesia could be as high as 29 million tons per year. Photo: Lindsay Hamsik/Mercy Corps

About an hour’s drive from the capital of Jakarta, Ribiyanto, a 37-year-old small business owner, is going about his daily task of making tempeh. The product, which is derived from fermented soybean, is a staple in the Indonesian diet.

Traditionally, these producers use corrosive bins and wood fuel to boil soybeans for tempeh production. Not only is it incredibly labor intensive and unhygienic, the fumes are toxic to workers and harmful to the environment.

In fact, Mercy Corps’ Climate Change teams recently calculated that carbon emissions from tofu and tempeh production in Indonesia could be as high as 29 million tons per year.

Today, Ribiyanto is working in a whole different environment. The newly-constructed factory at PRIMKOPTI, the local soybean cooperative in Bogor, is part of a Mercy Corps pilot project, funded by the European Commission, to test the effectiveness of equipment upgrades and cleaner, more hygienic working environments for tempeh producers.

The new facility is spotless. Long tubes and square packages of tempeh ferment on new, sanitary racks. Atop a stainless steel worktable, piles of husked soybeans are drying. Ribiyanto and one of his workers mix the soybeans to ensure they dry evenly and then prepare them for fermentation, lining up plastic sacks to vacuum-seal the prepared tempeh. They wear aprons, gloves and masks, something they’d never done in Ribiyanto’s other factory.

Access to credit means access to opportunities

In addition to the new pilot factories, Mercy Corps and the Bogor cooperative are providing tempeh producers a subsidized lease option for equipment upgrades. These leases function in the same way you or I might lease a car. An affordable lease option means small producers like Ribiyanto, who have few savings and limited access to credit from banks, now have the means to invest in equipment that increases their daily product output, reduces their production time, and decreases their carbon footprint.

In development work, we hear a lot about “value chain interventions” or “value chain development” initiatives, but conceptualizing that work can be challenging — that is until you speak with a small business owner like Ribiyanto.

The value chain concept describes the full range of activities that businesses, farms and workers like Ribiyanto do to bring a product from conception to its consumer. It includes design, production, marketing, distribution and support.

Throughout the lifecycle of the tempeh value chain, Mercy Corps is providing support through financial resources; linkages to new, higher-paying consumers; and technical assistance in the form of education, packaging and marketing support.

Ribiyanto, who is now producing tempeh with stainless steel drums and gas burners, said he has seen a 20 percent increase in his business. His product is a higher-quality one, has a longer shelf life, and is more hygienic and eco-friendly, which means he can price it at a more competitive rate and market it to higher-end customers.

Unexpected outcomes

After speaking with Ribiyanto more about his growing business and plans for the future, he volunteered something surprising. “Next, when I am ready to hire a new worker, I would like to hire a woman. Many people think making tempeh is men’s work, but I think women can play a role.”

Social perceptions about gender roles can limit a woman’s involvement in businesses. In Ribiyanto’s case, an intervention designed to reduce an industry’s environmental impact and increase productivity could, in the process, also increase gender equity in the tempeh-making business.

“They will make the product even better,” Ribiyanto said when asked what kind of role he thought women could play in his business.

Tofu and tempeh production is a very common business in this country. An estimated 83,000 producers are operating here. Think about the impact – more income, reduced carbon emissions and environmental pollutants, and better working environments – one lease had on one business. The idea of reaching even a quarter of the tempeh or tofu producers in Indonesia could mean a world of difference for thousands of families and communities.