Grassroots Innovation in Indonesia: Part 1/2

In this 2-part series, we will share a bit about why we as a team are really interested in Indonesia, our fascination with its culture and innovative spirit, and why we feel Southeast Asia’s largest country presents a huge opportunity for any company interested in growing its business by tackling societal challenges.

As someone who grew up in India up until my teenage years, Indonesia has always fascinated me.

I never found memorising stuff like this in school easy! Photo courtesy: Wikipedia

At school it was compulsory to learn Sanskrit — an ancient Indian language. I used to find it extremely hard because of its archaic prose, complicated grammar and very long words but mostly because I knew I’d probably never use this language even though it has very important historical and cultural significance in India.

But when I first visited Java in Indonesia few years ago, I was mildly surprised how quickly I was able to spot Sanskrit words. They seemed to pop up everywhere — in directional signs, in maps, in broken conversations with taxi drivers and even on billboards! A quick Wikipedia search told me that old Javanese had around 12,000 words from Sanskrit and most of them are so ingrained in modern-day Indonesia’s national language — Bahasa Indonesia, that they are no longer perceived to be foreign.

It was a strange, unifying feeling that a land geographically separated by thousands of kilometres and historically separated by centuries of its own history still shares aspects of a culture that I grew up in.


Since that experience, I’ve always had a soft spot for Indonesian culture and wanted to learn more about the country itself.

I believe that being able to speak a local language is the most powerful way to connect with people from any community. So during the last few years and over many visits to different parts of Java, I started picking up Bahasa Indonesia.

One of my fondest trips was to The Learning Farm — an organisation founded by one of our mentors which enables disadvantaged local youth to turn their lives around by learning organic farming.

Youth at The Learning Farm in Western Java turn their lives around by learning organic farming

Over the 4 days I stayed and volunteered at their school in the foothills of Gunung Gede in West Java, I met and got to know 38 youth from all across Indonesia — from Sumatra to Papua, grew my vocabulary by 250 words and did some incredible treks in the nearby forests.

The students at The Learning Farm are extremely eager to connect with people from other countries and learn from them. And each batch of students is able to grow their talents during their time in the organic farming program — talents such as music, art and entrepreneurship. Alumni from The Learning Farm have gone onto become expert bakers, farmers and social entrepreneurs.


After this trip, I took a 6-month class in Singapore to seriously learn Bahasa Indonesia. Being able to speak the language — which is of the the few things that unites the 17,000-odd islands that make up Indonesia, continues to come in very handy during every journey I make across the country.


I’ve always felt that the sparks to solve important social and environmental problems in our world today are often found on the ground — within local communities. So it is important to connect with these communities and discover that sense of wonder and creativity that can inspire us to innovate.

This is a philosophy we’ve embodied in Gone Adventurin’. Every couple of months we make it a point to visit big cities, small towns and villages across developing markets in Southeast Asia.

These visits are R&D of sorts for us. It enables us to connect to local change-makers, promising social entrepreneurs, government agencies, community development organisations and be in touch with ground-realities of the complex dynamics between economics, innovation, societal development and environmental impact.

We travel across Southeast Asian cities, towns and rural communities to find local innovators

In short, it helps us as an organisation to stay grounded and us an individuals to stay humble. This is also what enables us to provide unique insights and smart connections for local partnerships to our corporate clients. To give you an idea of what we do during these visits, I’ll give you a snapshot of our one of our recent journeys.


3 weeks back my colleague Abishek and I headed to Indonesia. Our first stop was to the popular holiday destination of Bali.

Bali has grown to become one of the hottest travel spots in Southeast Asia and it is now the most popular tourist destination in Indonesia. Over 1.5 million foreign tourists have visited the island of Bali during the first five months of 2015 — a growth of 11% over last year.

With a growing local population and no large-scale waste disposal infrastructure to deal with the huge tourist arrivals, environmental problems such as pollution have become more prevalent in Bali. For example, improperly disposed plastic bags from local restaurants and hotels end up in the island’s water bodies and mangroves forests slowly damaging local eco-systems.

What is happening in Bali is a stark example of what is being experienced across Indonesia. A recent Wall Street Journal article reports waste management is the most prominent environmental issue in the country.

Enter Bali Recycling. Over the past 4 years they have been providing waste collection and disposal services to local establishments — especially to hotels and restaurants across Bali. During our chat with Bali Recycling’s founder Olivier Pouillon, his passion for his work was very evident. Olivier believes that the entire concept of waste is a modern construct.

“In nature there is no such thing as waste; ‘waste’ are just materials on endless cycles to be re-used by us or back into nature.” — Olivier Pouillon, Founder of Bali Recycling

Before the invention of inorganic materials like plastic, people never thought of perishables or used up items as waste. These items were simply put back into the local ecosystems. And the same is happening with today’s waste. But the land to put today’s growing amount of waste — especially the inorganic stuff, is shrinking.

When he started offering his services, local establishments would ask him to pay them to collect their trash. No one was willing to pay for the collection and proper disposal. However, in the last 4 years of their operations, Olivier and his team have managed to change mindsets and convinced these establishments to pay for his services.

The Bali Recycling team. Photo courtesy: Bali Recycling

They have recently launched a mobile application CashforTrash to make it easier for local residents of Bali to identify their nearest waste collection centre that provides a monetary incentive. For a country where 50 percent of all online activity is done on mobile, simple tools like the mobile app have the potential to go a long way in making sustainable behaviour change more convenient.

Olivier at one of his work sites. Photo courtesy: http://ubudnowandthen.com/

Indonesians generate more than 22.5 million tons of trash a year, and by 2020 that number is expected to rise to 53 million tons. So local organisations like Bali Recycling, which grew out of a grassroots movement started in the 1990’s by a group of local Indonesians, can play a big role in changing people’s behaviours, reduce the environmental impact of trash and upcycle trash into valuable products.


Another organisation that is headquartered in Bali that we met during our journey is Kopernik. My colleague Laura had met their founder Toshi Nakamura at a conference in Singapore few years back and loved their model of bringing low-cost technologies to the “last-mile” customers across Indonesia.

Some of their technologies include water filters that enable access to clean drinking water, solar lamps which provide a clean, bright light for students in rural communities which are off-grid, bio-mass stoves and educational toys.

One of their impact stories is of Erni, a 25-year-old mother of five who lives in Raja Ampat on an island not connected to the local electricity grid. She would have to travel long distances to get diesel priced three times the normal price to power her generator. So her next best option were kerosene lamps and her children would often study at night under these lamps inhale noxious fumes.

Erni, a mother of five in Raja Ampat with Kopernik’s technologies

Since it started operations in 2011, it has impacted 290,371people and distributed 59,000 technologies — mostly in Indonesia but in also 24 other countries.


Bali Recycling and Kopernik are just a few of the many organisations in Indonesia that we connect with and who just within a few years have captured a significant market share for their services and products and established strong connections with local public, governments, community development organisations and even multi-national companies.

McKinsey reports that by 2030, the country could have the world’s 7th-largest economy, overtaking Germany and the United Kingdom. It would have added 90 million more people to its consuming class — more than any other country except China and India. With a large domestic consumption it has grown mostly without relying on exports of manufacturing.

As Indonesia continues on its growth journey, connecting and engaging with grassroots innovators and their wealth of local knowledge offers significant opportunities for companies looking to grow their business by tackling important social and environmental issues.

Written by: Ashwin Subramaniam, Co-founder, Gone Adventurin’

Part 2 of this series will focus on the spirit of grassroots innovation in Java — Indonesia’s most populated island.


  1. http://blogs.wsj.com/indonesiarealtime/2015/06/24/indonesians-say-waste-is-top-environmental-concern/
  2. http://www.balirecycling.com/
  3. http://www.kopernik.ngo/impact-story/erni-gam-island-raja-ampat-indonesia
Ashwin Subramaniam

Firmly believe that companies can unlock great business opportunities in tackling social and environmental challenges in their communities. Check out our story at www.goneadventurin.com or if you'd like to get in touch for a coffee or chat, email me at ashwin@goneadventurin.com. We'd love to hear your story.

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