Grassroots Innovation in Indonesia: Part 2/2

In this 2-part series, we will share 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.

This second part of our Indonesia series focuses on Java — Indonesia’s most populated island, with a round-up of some of the most innovative local start-ups, companies and development organisations across the island we’ve met that are creating positive social and environmental impact.

Understanding Java, Understanding Indonesia

Java is only the fourth largest island in Indonesia but contains more than half of the nation’s population. And even though Java represents only 7 percent of Indonesia’s total landmass, ethnic Javanese comprise about 45 percent of Indonesia’s total population.

A map showing population density of Indonesia. Source: USAID

So understanding Java, its culture and the perspectives of the Javanese can give us a great insight into the workings of the Indonesian bureaucracy, business culture and attitudes and day-to-day decision-making of consumers.

The Buzz in Jakarta

To understand grassroots innovation in Java, we start from Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, where the local start-up scene is really buzzing. 3 weeks ago over a cup of coffee we met Global Entrepreneurship Program Indonesia (GEPI) — a co-working space for around 40 small start-ups which also has an in-house incubator and provides its start-ups with access to angel investors. GEPI is backed by some of Indonesia’s biggest businesses.

Poster for one of GEPI’s upcoming start-up events in Jakarta. Photo courtesy: GEPI

One of the start-ups we got introduced to was Wedlite, which is helping young couples across the country pay for their weddings. The financial services company was started by Abraham Viktor — a young former investment banker. Weddings in Indonesia are a bit like the ones I’ve often been to growing up in India — they are elaborate and expensive.

Couples in Indonesia often spend years trying to pay off the costs of their wedding — that is if they manage to find a source of funding. Others who don’t might just postpone their wedding till they reach a strong financial position.

Abraham started working at GEPI to grow his business idea. His business idea came about when he was looking for options to fund his own wedding and was not satisfied. He e realised that hundreds of thousands of other young couples face a similar challenge.

Anyone willing to put up their motorbike as collateral can go to Wedlite’s website and apply for a loan which is at a much lower interest rate than other traditional options.

Another start-up social enterprise based out of GEPI is Nusantra Development Initiatives (NDI) — a social enterprise which focuses on empowering women entrepreneurs in Indonesia. Interestingly one of NDI initial team-members used to sit right across my work desk when I worked at an investment bank in Singapore!

I myself went through similar experiences of wanting to find a deeper purpose to our work and found that social entrepreneurship offered a great opportunity to bridge the business and impact world at the same time.

While based out of Jakarta, by end of 2014 NDI served more than 8,000 family members in Riau Islands by distributing over 2,500 solar lights in 30 communities.

The Dynamism in Bandung

We then headed south-east out of Jakarta for a 4-hour drive along scenic but mostly jam-packed roads to the city of Bandung. Its higher altitude, strong concentration of university students and proliferation of artists makes Bandung literally and figuratively one of Indonesia’s coolest cities. The city has produced many of Indonesia’s top scientists, artists, engineers and business leaders and is the center of Indonesia’s burgeoning ICT technology.

Smart Sustainable Cities was the theme for the recent SHAPE Asia-Pacific event at Bandung

At the most recent edition of the regional SHAPE.BDG conference we met a host of local start-ups based in Bandung and also spoke to the team at Greeneration — a social enterprise which works on innovative environmental programs across Indonesia. One of Greeneration’s projects isBagoes, which mixes the concept of reuse with fashion to create upmarket products that are environmentally friendly.

The company recently also launched a social entrepreneurship programbased on environment with the Indonesian arm of Singapore’s DBS Bank.

The Greeneration team is young and dynamic and has a strong business background

The Spirit in Surabaya

Our final stop on our journey across in Java was Surabaya. Surabaya is the second largest city in Indonesia and its main waterway — the 41-kilometer Surabaya River (part of the Brantas river basin), supplies 96% of the drinking water for 3 million people in the city.

On our recent visit to Surabaya we met Prigi Andisari — a native Surabayan who spent his carefree childhood days swimming and playing in the Surabaya river’s cool, clear waters by his village and watching the entire community thrive happily on its banks.

He shares, “One day when I came back to my village after a few years in university I was in for a shock — my beloved river had become heavily polluted due to unchecked industrialisation and illegal human encroachments on its banks. Mercury levels in the river were 100 times the tolerable limit established by the World Health Organization.”

He immediately established Ecological Observation and Wetlands Conservation (ECOTON) to promote sustainable wetland resource management. From its initial days in environmental advocacy its now grown into a social enterprise which empowers local communities living around the wetlands in Indonesia to create economic incentives from the preservation of the river.

Prigi with local school students upstream on the Surabaya river. His River Detection Program, has been implemented in more than 50 schools, teaches children how to monitor the river’s water quality and report their findings to the government.

The organisation also educates local industries of the impact of river pollution and advising them on how to change their practices to become more environmentally sustainable.

Empowering the People

A technology start-up that is enabling development organisations across Java to scale their impact is Kitabisa.com — one of Indonesia’s earliest crowdfunding platforms supporting social and environmental causes.

During my coffee with Vikra Ijas — Kitabisa’s co-founder and Chief Marketing Officer, I learn about some of their growth strategies and we discuss ideas on how companies and brands could move their marketing campaigns onto the crowd-funding space to drive consumer engagement and loyalty.

kitabisa.com supports crowd-funding initiatives across Java. Photo courtesy: kitabisa.com


An increasing number of local innovators, start-ups and development organisations in Indonesia are creating innovative partnerships with companies across all industries.

These partnerships enable grassroots innovations to be scaled up. They also provide companies with new consumer insights for marketing, innovations to create more sustainable supply chains and ideas to integrate sustainability and social impact into the core of their business.

Most importantly these partnerships enable the employees of companies to find a deep sense of purpose and meaning in knowing that their jobs are directly and positively impacting lives of millions of people.

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


  1. http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2015/10/13/gepi-helps-indonesia-s-startups-change-nation.html
  2. https://www.techinasia.com/kitabisa-indonesia-social/
  3. http://shapebdg.asia/#
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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