Crickets, crackers and chairs

Indonesia, August 14, 2009

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Neng received a one million Indonesian rupiah loan to expand the cricket farm she runs with her husband. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Senior Writer Roger Burks (right) sits with 72-year-old Ma Oneng, grandmother of shopkeeper and loan recipient Imas. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Yesterday and today couldn’t have been more different, save for one similarity: both days we were learning about Bank Andara’s programs. But while yesterday we were in a bank tower 28 floors up, today we were in a small village outside the city of Bandung, two hours south of Jakarta.

We were there to visit Bank Arthaguna Mandiri, a small microfinance institution (MFI) that Bank Andara has helped to capitalize. Earlier this year, this rural MFI received one billion Indonesian rupiah (about US $100,000) from Bank Andara to provide more loans and extend financial services to women around the area.

All of Bank Arthaguna Mandiri’s 1,000 clients are women. While women operate what seems like the majority of small businesses in this part of Indonesia, they often have trouble getting access to business-building loans for many reasons, including lack of collateral. Bank Arthaguna Mandiri helps to organize lending groups, made up of a couple dozen members, giving them five months of helpful financial lessons before disbursing loans to individuals.

Today, all 24 members of the Kartini credit group — named after a local heroine and pioneer of women’s rights — are receiving their first loans from the bank. The average loan is one million Indonesian rupiah (US $100), which might not seem like a lot, but it’s an amount that can mean a big difference to an up-and-coming business.

One million rupiah means about three kilograms of cricket eggs for 38-year-old Neng, mother of two and the only bug farmer I’ve ever met. After the initial purchase of eggs and construction of incubator boxes at 80,000 Indonesian rupiah (US $8) each, the crickets only need leafy greens, a little chicken feed and warmth to multiply and grow. And Neng can sell a kilogram of fully-grown grasshoppers to poultry farmers for 35,000 Indonesian rupiah (US $3.50).

She sells up to 50 kilograms of crickets every week — but her husband, Suganda, likes to sample them first, telling me, Julisa and Thatcher they’re a delicacy in the village he comes from. Neng won’t let him cook crickets in her house, so he usually just pops a couple fresh ones in his mouth.

I didn’t indulge my curiosity.

One million rupiah means more inventory for 34-year old Imas’s warung, or small grocery stall. She has the most kinds of crackers I’ve ever seen around here, especially in a kiosk like this. Crackers — made from rice or cassava, flavored with fish and other things — are an essential part of Indonesian cuisine. Back at our hotel in Jakarta, there’s even a “cracker corner” in the restaurant.

Imas needs to sell a lot of crackers to pay school fees for her two children. Her grandmother — 72-year-old Ma Oneng, one of the sweetest ladies you could ever meet — helps out with the family business.

One million rupiah means that 35-year-old Ai can buy finishing tools, varnish and sandpaper for her family’s furniture business, Laksana Mebel. “Laksana” means “fulfilled,” as in the dream she’s helped her husband fulfill for the last 18 years. Their cottage factory produces about six table-and-chair sets a week from a local wood called jati, and employs seven local craftsmen. Ai hopes that she’ll be able to hire more workers soon, to help them fulfill their own hopes of a steady job.

After an amazing lunch of Sundanese kebabs, rice and sauce — I am convinced that Indonesian food is the best in the world — we were on our way back to Jakarta. Because of traffic, it took us nearly four hours to reach the neighborhood where the Mercy Corps office is located.

I thought of a lot of things while trapped in the car, especially what life might be like as a cricket farmer. But I still didn’t regret my decision to not sample the crop.