The Lean Startup

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By Julia Kurnia, Director

Mardiana Madeali was pushing a wheelbarrow full of sawdust when I arrived at her mushroom farm in Sulawesi, the large spider-shaped island in the northeast of the Indonesian archipelago.  Though the enterprise she founded now employs half a dozen others, she never hesitates to roll up her sleeves and lend a hand with whatever needs to be done.

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Ibu Mardiana (center) with two employees

Growing up in a family of subsistence farmers in a remote village, Ibu Mardiana was accustomed to working hard from a young age.  Instead of pocket money, she recalls, her father gave her a pair of ducks.  When they laid eggs, she sold them cooked and salted at the village school – and she has been an entrepreneur ever since.

After elementary school, tragedy struck Ibu Mardiana’s family, and she ended up moving in with foster parents.  “During the six years I lived with other people, I had to do a lot of house chores and worked so hard that I did not even have time to study at home,” she recalls.  Against all odds, Ibu Mardiana completed high school, then college.

Ibu Mardiana worked for several years after college, using her earnings to put her six younger siblings through school.  Then she left her employment: an unusual decision in a place where formal jobs are rare and coveted.  “There was no opportunity to grow and develop there,” she explained, “and I always had this longing to be an entrepreneur.”

Ibu Mardiana decided to try her hand at mushroom cultivation, because demand for mushrooms in Sulawesi’s largest city was strong, and nobody was producing them locally – they had to be imported from Java, Indonesia’s main island.

Growing mushrooms is a specialized craft, one that normally is learned at an agricultural college or through apprenticeship to an experienced farmer.  At the time, Ibu Mardiana’s savings amounted to less than $100 – not enough for plane fare to Jakarta, where agriculture courses were taught.  So she used free online educational resources to teach herself.

But the mushroom cultivation methods Ibu Mardiana studied were designed for Java, and they failed in Sulawesi’s hotter climate.  She lost several harvests, but kept experimenting until she figured out what worked locally.  Only then did she begin looking for funds to grow the business.

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Mushroom spores ready for “planting”

 

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The mushrooms are grown in packages of sawdust, which must be sterilized by steaming for several hours before the mushroom spores are introduced.

 

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The mushrooms take several weeks to grow.  About halfway through the growing cycle, they must be moved into a cooler temperature.  

 

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Mushrooms beginning to grow

 

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Oyster mushrooms ready for harvest

 

Unsecured bank loans for small business were nonexistent, so Ibu Mardiana turned again to online research.  By Googling she found Zidisha, and became one of our first members in Sulawesi.

Zidisha funds made it possible for Ibu Mardiana to scale up her mushroom farm by importing high-quality spores and constructing buildings for processing and storage.  Today her mushroom farm directly employs eight people, including herself, her husband and six women from the local neighborhood.

She has also trained some thirty local housewives in mushroom cultivation, and keeps a simple classroom area in her farm for training seminars.  She even distributes mushroom “kits” – mushroom spores prepackaged in planting sacks – for those who lack the equipment to prepare their own.

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The “classroom”

When I expressed surprise that Ibu Mardiana would choose to create local competitors by sharing her hard-won expertise, she acknowledged the potential threat to her business interests – but said helping the local women, many of whom struggled to support their families, was her primary goal.  Her generosity has already produced a remarkable legacy: fresh local mushrooms are now being grown up and down the coast of Sulawesi.

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“Have a generous heart”

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By Julia Kurnia, Director

Artists are among the most generous of people. Perhaps inherent in the appreciation of creativity comes a deep, underlying love of humanity and our Earth.

– Kelly Borsheim

I was fortunate to visit the famous dance studio of Aloysius J in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The studio consisted of a large mirrored practice room, with a door opening into a large courtyard in back.  Dance props were tucked into the corners, and hundreds of well-worn shoes were lined up neatly under an impressive display of trophies.  The entire place was spotlessly clean, and every bit of wall space was covered with motivational posters.

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The indoor practice area

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At just 25 years old, Aloysius has a legacy that would make a mid-career professional proud.  Born with an extraordinary passion for the performing arts, Aloysius never missed an opportunity to practice dance as a teenager, and was eventually awarded a scholarship to study modern dance in Singapore.  Upon his return to Indonesia, he was asked to serve as a judge in a dance competition.  Not content to merely judge the participants, he shared tips for improvement.  Some of them asked him to teach them more, and before he knew it, Aloysius had his first students.

His teaching must have been good, because as word spread, more and more students came.  Aloysius soon had to rent a room to house their practice sessions.  Most of them were high school students from low-income neighborhoods in Jakarta.  The value they gained went far beyond dancing skills, Aloysius explained.  “At a young age, not everyone is able to understand themselves and a lot of changes that might happened in their behaviors and perceptions. Some more if they don’t build a good relationship with their parents and family. So through those values in dance, I always encourage them and lead them to know what they want and direct their potentials to be used in a right way, in this case is doing positive activities through rehearsals and competitions.”

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Unusually for a dance school, Aloysius does not charge his students any tuition fee.  Aloysius himself is a volunteer, and the school’s other costs are funded almost entirely with prize money from dance competitions.  The students travel throughout Indonesia to compete, entering 10-12 competitions every month, and bringing home prize money an incredible 90% of the time.

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Just some of the trophies the school has won

When I asked Aloysius why he did not target a higher-income student demographic and charge tuition, as performing arts instructors normally do, he said, “As an artist there is an urge inside myself to share.”  He explained that teaching the students who most needed it, for free, was not only a way to give back to the arts, but also made his own art richer and deeper.

When his school grew beyond 100 students, Aloysius began searching for a proper studio location. He soon found an ideal place, but finances were a barrier: the studio required a year’s worth of rent to be paid in advance.  There were plenty of banks in Indonesia, he explained, but they invariably required collateral assets – something that Aloysius lacked.  He found Zidisha while Googling for loans without collateral, and decided to give it a try.

Previous loans were used to purchase build props, buy dancing shoes, acquire loudspeakers so the school no longer needed to use cell phones to play music during practice, and outdoor lights to enable practicing after dark.  The most recent loan, of $682, will go toward rental of the new studio.

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The new sound system

“Teaching youngsters and motivating them through dancing is my passion,” Aloysius explained.  “Because dancing has changed my life so much. Not so many people can appreciate it because they just think that dance is all about performing, but beyond that, there are hard works, discipline, positive mindset, persistence, determination and struggles involved that we have been going through and that shapes our personalities.”

Interested in seeing some of the students’ dance performances?  Aloysius has kindly posted some videos of them here: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2fahea_video-2_webcam

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The wedding artist

Bu Tika

By Julia Kurnia, Director

Sri Sulastika Sulhan, or “Bu Tika,” graciously welcomed me to her cool tiled home on the outskirts of Jakarta yesterday.  Nothing in the home’s outward appearance hinted at the artistic masterpieces that were being produced inside.

Bu Tika modestly calls herself a “wedding organizer” – a service that encompasses venue management, interior decoration, photography, and above all, clothing production.  Indonesia has some of the world’s most elaborate traditional dress, and weddings are the vehicle that keeps that tradition alive.

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Page from a wedding photo album, costumes by Bu Tika.

Wedding clothing in Indonesia is not simply a matter of personal preference.  Each of Indonesia’s hundreds of cultures has its own traditional costumes for men and women of different ages, which have their roots in the rich kingdoms that flourished in the islands in medieval times.  Observing traditional dress, down to the tiniest detail, at important life events like weddings is how people show respect for their elders – a central value in Indonesian culture.

Jakarta is a melting pot of traditions from all over Indonesia, and in the fifteen years she’s been in business, Bu Tika has produced a staggering variety of traditional wedding outfits to accommodate them.

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Various wedding gowns produced by Bu Tika

Her wedding organizer service is a family endeavor, and brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews work together to piece together clothing for big orders.

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Bu Tika’s sewing machine.  

Normally her brothers and sisters do the sewing, and Bu Tika adds beadwork and embroidery.  Producing a single hand-embroidered bridal gown takes three months, and the average price of a gown is about $400.

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Beadwork done by hand

Bu Tika has never needed to advertise her services; customers come to her by word of mouth.  She is well known as one of the best wedding planners in Jakarta, and has even been featured in a national magazine for the quality of her work.

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Magazine article about Bu Tika’s wedding planning service

The main constraint to growth of her business is working capital: she explains that the normal practice in custom clothing production is to pay half of the agreed price when the outfits are halfway finished, and the rest upon delivery – so fabric, beads, even living expenses of the family members who work on the orders, need to be self-financed in advance.

Funding from Zidisha lenders is helping Bu Tika bridge this gap, so that she can accept larger orders.  She explains that in this way, she will be able to grow the business and offer employment to more members of her extended family, while keeping the exquisite wedding traditions that she loves alive.

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A triple harvest

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By Taylor Hanna, Ghana Ambassador

It was really a pleasure to get to meet Prosper yesterday, along with Volunteer Mentor George Bonsu. We met at the school where he works in Swedru, a rural community outside of Kumasi, as a teacher of science and math. Any time he is not at the school, Prosper can be found working on his farm, a bit of a walk from town, where he farms and harvests okra for sale.

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Zidisha loans have allowed Prosper to significantly grow his harvest – making three hectares of land available to him rather than the original one. He then uses these profits to help his own family as well as several needy children he has taken the responsibility to help. He explained that he can finally afford the school fees for one girl, who will start secondary school in Kumasi on Monday. Prosper is also very interested in helping his community generally, and has been pitching in to help with his friend (and fellow Zidisha borrower) Aziz Zakari’s campaign for assemblyman of the combined Wawasi-Swedru district.

It was so wonderful to get to meet and chat with Prosper about his work, passions, and the situation of the community he lives in, and I know he is grateful for the opportunity and support given to him by his Zidisha lenders – they have already made quite an impact in his crops. He hopes to finish paying off his loan in the next week so that he can apply for another one. We wish him all the best!