All is not as it seems ….again

We have flown into the Indonesian island of Flores on the local airline Merpati. The plane is delayed. As a colleague said “It’s mer party and I fly if I want to”. Arriving at Maumere, we made the three hour road trip to Larentuka arriving in the dark. Next morning at 6am we took sweet black local coffee at the hotel which tastes vaguely of mothballs and now in the Toyota on route, one of our staff passes out sweet bread rolls the centers are filled with chocolate and grated cheese mixed together and they have a kerosene after taste.

We follow a road through the heart of the Larentuka Township.

The town is just waking and most of the store fronts are still shuttered and everywhere people are carrying things; on their backs, on their heads and on motorcycles stacked with bags of produce, bunches of bananas or three or four people. A motorcycle travels towards us sandwiched between two gaudy plastic wrapped mattresses. On the other side of town the road hugs the coast. The sun has just risen above the volcanic peaks of an adjacent island several kilometres away and a pastel pink tail of soft molten light makes a line towards us across the pal-blue silky water of the strait. It is a ‘since the world began’ scene only humanised by two fishing boats. We pass grey sand beaches, outrigger canoes moored just offshore, little villages of palm leaf rooved huts, ornate front yard family graves tiled turquoise and white, pigs tethered to wooden house stumps and goats, chickens, dogs, and kids with runny noses. The road begins to climb away from the coast and into the rocky hills. Straight out the ocean and increasingly far below, small villages among coconut palms in picturesque sandy coves. The view now is picture postcard perfect. But in no time the sun has become an unforgiving yellow white, bleaching the soft details from the day, parching the land and baking the stunted crops. The rain has come late this year and was too short and the corn has failed and I am told that this time which the villagers call “the hungry months” will be longer this year; malnutrition and stunting is a fact of life for many children here.

Our destination is the village of Duntana, a collection of around 30 huts at the end of a steep gravel track. We are maybe 10 kilometres inland from the coast now. There is no electricity here. Each house is surrounded by a fence of stick or wood planks; the earth around each house is swept bare and sprinkled with a smattering of animals and kids with guileless faces, white teeth and big brown eyes. Some houses have palm leaf rooves others are corrugated iron, the walls are mostly made from bamboo slats and woven palm leaf matting. In the doorways of every second or third house a women is standing with a kid on her hip and I look past them into the semi darkness of living rooms; a few cabinets, maybe an old couch, some chairs, a Mary or Jesus print with a red radiating heart and maybe a couple of family photos.

A kid with a Che Guevara tee shirt comes closer to inspect me. I shake his hand and he lights up and points to the heroic face and beret – “Bob Marley” he says proudly.

 The farmers in Duntana have worked out a system where they pool their harvested cashews and hold an informal auction with a number of middle men and then sell collectively to the highest bidder. We have learned in Surabaya that if the producers made a small investment in a hand powered machine to crack the outside of the cashew nuts, then they can potentially get two to three times their current price. But the middle men, who are the farmer’s windows to the world of trade, haven’t told them about this and perhaps they don’t know.

Middle men are true entrepreneurs but are often labelled as “the” problem, standing between farmers and the higher prices the bigger buyers pay. Through our interviews and discussions we learn that each middle man provides some vital services. He gives the farmers upfront cash, he provides transportation and he takes care of all the risk. But there is more to it that this. In Flores, like most of the islands in the east of Indonesia, a families standing is largely determined by the “gifts” they make during celebrations that occur for baptisms, marriages and deaths. If someone provides a pig at your daughter’s wedding you are obliged to provide a pig when their daughter marries and if you provide a bigger pig then so much the better. Because of the regularity of these celebrations and that villagers become obligated to one another they are part of a cycle from which they cannot escape. If you have already provided, then you want to stay in the system until it is your turn, if someone has provided to you, tradition and obligation keeps you bound. I sit with three men. One of them lights a kretek cigarette which crackles into life, a puff of smoke, smell of cloves little sparklets of salt peter and he is ready to talk. “Yes, we must have costly celebrations no more again, but it will take time”. The three men all agreed the system needed to change because it uses up most of the excess assets that could be used to improve businesses or to provide emergency resources so that they are in a better position to take business risks. But they also agreed this would take time and no one had a plan. And this is where the middle men come in. He provides needed credit; sometimes cash but generally in the form of livestock, medication for sick children, tin for roofing or household items. In return he obligates the farmers to pay him back in cashews or other produce. So when harvest comes, the farmer’s cashews are often presold and the middle man determines the price. This system of pre-selling is called ijong, but the story doesn’t end here. The village buyers borrow money from other collectors who intern take advances from the buyers in centres like Surabaya, each locked into a system that in a way suits them yet all ends up making it difficult for producers to escape poverty.

 Our task is to find ways in which the market can work better for producers through them adding value to what they produce, finding ways in which they can better understand the way the market works and have more freedom from ijong to sell at market prices. The collective they have formed is a great start and we believe that the information and support our Market Facilitator is offering will help them to take the next steps and to influence others to begin similar groups. And in our conversations we begin to formulate a future plan to take some farmers on an exposure tour that will include a visit to Surabaya so that they can better understand the value chain they are a part of.

 We will have lunch with about 15 men from the village. Casey who is travelling with us grew up in Malaysia so speaks passable Bahasa Indonesian. He said they had given us a choice of fish, poultry or dog, and he has requested fish. But Casey got it wrong; the village leader was apparently telling him we were having fish poultry AND dog. And as the plates of food arrive one was filled with small greasy clumps dark brown meat on chopped bones and little ribs. And as we leave the other village dogs look us in the eye, heads lowered eyes upwards they slink away knowingly. One less bark around the village tonight.

 We are late, it is already 2pm and we are only now finishing lunch after the morning’s interviews with community groups. We go over the details, when we planned the day we were told it would take an hour to get to the next producer group. We are now told it will take 2 hours each way. I wonder out loud whether it is worth the time as we have already gathered a lot of information. “No” we are told, “it is actually one and a half hours”. I ask why last night it was one hour. I am told that it is one hour if we take the good road and one and a half hours if we take the bad road. I ask why we can’t take the good road and I am told we can. “So it is an hour right”. “Yes” everyone says. My colleague Olivia and I pass a knowing look. An hour and a half later we arrive at the village.

 While we are there we also take some video footage for a short movie. We are not filming a success story but taking footage which describes some of the challenges we are grappling with in our efforts to assist impoverished farmers on Flores to sell their products more profitably. In Development, this area of economics is known as “Access to Markets”.

Pak Johnson Tobing is our camera man from the Jakarta office and he has an expensive professional Sony camera that is slightly smaller than a rocket launcher. He is very experienced and uses all the film terms. When it came my time to give a short interview there was a bit of confusion as he assumed that I like he, was a professional. The dialogue went something like


“My name is Jock Noble and I am World Vision Australia’s Manager for …”


“Did you get the first bit?”



“Shall I continue?”


“Are we ready?”


“My name is….”


“Pak do you start at Rolling or Action?”

“Rolling Action”……

 But now I am doubled up in laughter so that my stomach hurts and I can’t breathe and tears are streaming down my cheeks and I can’t say another word.

 Later we arrive at “Sea World Club”, a group of beach bungalows and a small dive centre and will stay here for the next 5 nights. Karyn at reception has the clear face, smoky eyes and willowy body depicted in one of those paintings of beautiful island women. She smells of soap and sundried clothes and is wearing a Rolling Stones tee shirt with a huge red tongue on the front. She is facing a computer screen and I see the Vatican website is open and she looks up under a fringe of thick black hair and her face lights up with a smile.

 The founder of Sea World is a German missionary named Father Bollen , a big man, now in his eighties, he still fills a doorway. I met him one morning as he walked bare-barrel chested among the coconut palms on the beach with his white monkey ‘Hanoman’ on a long lead. “Don’t come to close” he said, looking lovingly at Hanoman, “dis vicked moonkey bites”.

It is very dark and I am walking back from the restaurant to my bungalow and the warm evening breeze has picked up a faint smell of beach, of coconut oil and cooking fires. I pass a middle aged East European couple sitting outside on their veranda, a bottle of Bintang beer between them, Bintang means star. The thick set woman has a tattoo the size of a hamburger on her thigh and he wears a tight green Harley Davidson tee shirt stretched across an immense belly like a balloon. A computer is on the table and playing Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ a tinny attempt to add something to the moment.

 The sky here, so much bigger than the land and sea, is covered in a crazy scattering of star lights, mystical patterns, lines, crosses and dips. I suddenly feel more than see, a sense of order in the chaos and I wonder how I have not seen this map for ancient seafarers so clearly before now. And I am thinking how the situation at Duntana village also seems so filled with complexity. But our journey, like the ancient navigators has started with the destination in mind and we at least have that to guide us for now.

Jock Noble

Flores, Indonesia December 2010

About jocknoble

I have worked in thirty countries with most time spent in India, Kenya, Indonesia, USA , Australia and Armenia. My current role with World Vision International is as a Livelihoods Advisory based in Manila. Before this I spent 4 years based in Armenia leading an economic development learning hub for 10 countries across the Middle East and Eastern Europe. I spent 8 years with World Vision Australia where I founded and lead the Social Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Unit (SEED), a team of economic development specialists,to establish and support innovative initiatives in poor communities from Africa to the Asia Pacific, Senegal to Timor Leste.. I believe the reason people are poor is that they do not have enough money and our challenge is to help instill hope and a genuine sense of self-belief, starting with those of us who somehow work in development. I was the founder and CEO of Diversity@work Australia Inc, a social enterprise developing innovative models, strategies and educational programs to strengthen companies through diversity and inclusion. I hold a Master of Entrepreneurship and Innovation and a Masters of Strategic Foresight from Swinburne University in Melbourne, post-graduate studies in Not for Profit Management at Georgetown University and Negotiation and Conflict Management at Latrobe University Melbourne. I was the Carey Medal winner for 2007 for exceptional and outstanding service to the community. So it goes Published Books: 'Postcards - What am I doing here' (2016) which is a collection of my blogs along with selected photographs, and Stores from the Road - Ten stories for workers in international development (2016)
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