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Our six-person NUvention Impact team has just returned from two eventful weeks of design research in Indonesia. We come home bearing countless memories, hundreds of photographs, two design directions and one case of typhoid. Most importantly, we bring back an enthusiasm for the design process and the Indonesian farming population we look to empower with it.

Pre-trip research led us to understand a few broad characteristics of the Indonesian rice industry. Smallholder farmers owning less than the equivalent of one football field of land were losing significant profit to middlemen who purchased, milled and sold farmers’ raw product. We expected that, if we could create more direct access to markets we could help to adjust the profit sharing.

What we discovered once on the ground was a far more complex reality.

The six of us spent two weeks in the home of a government worker assigned to aid a West Java community of over 250 rice farmers. We spoke to land owners, share-cropper workers, middlemen and rice millers. We met with Jakarta’s rice merchants and Indonesia’s premium organic distributors. We participated in the entire supply chain, from planting through harvest and packaging. Most importantly, we immersed ourselves in the community, living in a basic home next door to the village’s school and its population of curious children.

Upon our first days in the field, we realized that a farmer isn’t just a farmer. Nearly all rice growers have second jobs, and often supplement their income by owning a roadside convenience stand, internet café, or fertilizer and pesticide business. Some even operated as middlemen, collecting the product of their neighbors and selling it at a nearby rice market. Some farmers owned land while others rented or worked it for a seasonal wage. Many owned motorcycles, yet some didn’t even own a full set of teeth. This was a far more complex and diverse landscape than our research could have illuminated.

After a few days full of interviews and observations, our group gathered to synthesize our findings. After discussing themes and opportunities, we settled upon two primary concepts to prototype and test. Given that these farmers relied on two harvest periods and were plagued by regular crop failure, we developed a plan for agricultural insurance to protect against pest and weather-related yield failure.

After observing the prosperity of nearby organic rice farmers and understanding the concerns with rice purity held by Karawang’s synthetic pesticide users, we also built a proposal for an Organic Farming Center. This centrally located organic HQ and corresponding village outposts would sell organic inputs, provide loan assistance to help in the farming transition, and help farmers access a higher premium organic end-market.

Prototype testing and revision further narrowed our focus. Karawang’s farming community, although ailed by a reliance on fertility-sapping synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, was not one eager for large scale change. A shift in farming practices would need to come along with near term protection and financial benefit. The organic rice market, after deep discussion with a few of Jakarta’s exporters and packagers, was far too small to substantiate an entire regional production shift. On the other hand, insurance was quite popular among local land owners, government officials, and academics.

We departed from Karawang and readied for our 30-hour trip back home fatigued yet enthusiastic. While refining our most popular concept will take further research and understanding, our information and reflections gained from on-the-ground experience will allow us to approach this challenge with a confidence not previously possible.

We learned many things, but wish to share a few core reflections about the design process:

  • The design process is fueled by interactions made possible only by strong on-the-ground relationships. We benefited from a partner with enough connections to keep our team fully immersed for the entire two week period. The value of a good partner cannot be overstated.
  • Pre-conceptions, online research, and “professional” opinion about local conditions and challenges can only scratch the surface. Nothing can compare with in-field research.
  • If a solution was easy to arrive at, it would have already arrived. It’s easy to diagnose poverty. It’s incredibly challenging to cure it.

The NUvention Indonesia team is composed of students in the NUvention Impact course taught by Kellogg professor Jamie Jones. NUvention Impact is an interdisciplinary experiential learning program developed to teach students how to design and build market-based startups that help address unmet needs in areas in which resources are limited. As part of their coursework, the students from the Indonesia team worked directly with rice farmers in Indonesia to gain hands-on experience over the course of two weeks.