How Cakes and Crackers Saved a Village

Indonesia, November 22, 2005

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    Wati, a baker from the Acehnese village of Lampisang, puts freshly-baked Bolu Boi cakes into a bag. Photo: Shirine Bakhat/Mercy Corps Photo:

Lampisang, Aceh Besar is a lovely village of traditional Indonesian wooden houses built on stilts. When the Indian Ocean tsunami hit in late December 2004, the waves reached the village with sufficient force to bear most of the villagers’ possessions away. Everyone managed to flee into the surrounding hills before the deadly surge came, and so Lampisang was lucky not to lose any lives.

Times have never been easy in this community of farmers, but, with many men still out of work in the aftermath of the tsunami, it is often the women who generate the income needed to keep their families going. They often do so by making cakes, cassava crackers and other baked goods.

The women in Lampisang work together and help each other. Cakes and cassava crackers are made from home, and the women get together in groups to work.

“It is much better when we work together,” said Ibu Ana, one of the community’s bakers. “We can talk, and laugh.”

Ibu Ana is just one of the dedicated women taking part in Mercy Corps’ Livelihoods program in Aceh. Backing women’s livelihoods is especially important, because it bolsters family income and earnings are often used to pay for children’s education. The money the women earn also provides them with a measure of control and independence in their lives.

Mercy Corps’ support goes beyond simply providing the funds that local women need to restart their businesses. The organization also looks at the whole market chain the business is part of and provides assistance that reaches from negotiating with supply vendors to supporting distribution.

Women from villages like Lampisang form a group and submit a proposal to Mercy Corps for a grant that enables them to buy the equipment and material they need to restart their home businesses. As part of the Livelihoods program, all members of the group commit themselves to investing membership fees into a revolving fund that will be used as a savings group. In Lampisang, 11 cake makers, 11 cassava cracker makers and 41 members of a sewing circle form the group.

Women Bring Home the Bakin'

Wati, age 23, is another of the cake makers in the village. Together with her mother Kartini and grandmother, she specializes in Bolu Boi cakes. The cakes are made from a simple mixture of flour, water, sugar, eggs and vanilla, baked in small traditional forms over a smoky coconut husk fire. They are a favorite all over Aceh, and at weddings it is a local tradition for the bride’s family to present a Bolu Boi cake in the form of a fish to the groom’s family.

Wati’s dark kitchen is a hive of activity, and her mother Kartini doesn’t even want to stand still for a family photo - the cakes might burn. On a good day they can sell up to a 100 bags, with a bag containing 10 cookie-sized cakes for 3,500 IDR (40 cents). The peak season for cake sales is during the month of Ramadan, when they can sell up to 500 bags per day from the little shop in front of their house. The income made by selling Bolu Boi cakes supports Wati, her parents, grandparents and siblings - a family of 8 in all.

Ibu Ana makes cassava cakes by shredding raw cassava into pulp. The pulp is then rolled out into thin circles on a sheet of plastic and boiled. The next step in the preparation is to dry the crackers for a day or two in the sun on traditional palm leaf mats. The sun-dried crackers are then sold to road side cafes and on the market, and still need to be fried before they can be eaten.

Ibu Ana makes up to 400 cassava crackers per day, which totals 40,000 IDR or about $4. With this income she is supporting her husband – who lost his job as a driver since his previous company hasn’t reopened business yet – and her two school-aged children. Her husband is now helping her with the cracker business, and they use the income to pay for food and the children’s tuition fees. Ibu Ana even has managed to save a little money – a fact that makes her very proud.

In Lampisang, cakes and crackers are making a difference in family’s lives - one that goes far beyond a tasty snack.