The fourth edition of the Sustainable Palm Oil Dialogue (SPOD) took place with the motto: “Securing Sustainability in Turbulent Times”. It was held in Amsterdam on 20 October 2022 and boasted a breakout session, ‘Innovative ideas: delivering sustainable palm oil now!’ among its many events.
During this session, Irfan Bakhtiar, Director of Strengthening Palm Oil Sustainability in Indonesia (SPOSI), as well as of the Biodiversity Foundation (KEHATI), presented a new mobile tool designed to improve the situation of palm oil smallholders in Indonesia.
The rural development context of SawitKita
Before going into detail, some context of what led to the development of that tool must be explained. The challenges confronted by the two largest palm oil producers in the world, Indonesia and Malaysia, are similar.
In both countries, the crop is a leading earner of export revenues. But western consumers are increasingly critical of palm oil cultivation because of its environmental impact. Hence, producer countries are keen to make their palm oil supply chains more sustainable.
In Indonesia, according to SPOS:
- Export value in 2020 reached over USD17 billion
- The area cultivated with oil palm was 16.4 million hectares
- Around 41% of all operating units were smallholdings
- Land area cultivated by smallholders is estimated at 1.9 million hectares, 733 thousand of which are in forest areas.
It is precisely the last group of palm oil producers that requires the most attention and assistance as they are struggling with three main challenges:
- Illegality: A large part of this subsector is worked on informally, cultivating oil palm in areas of insecure tenure which are not intended for palm oil cultivation.
- Productivity: Because of the informal nature of the smallholders, they frequently fall through the cracks and therefore cannot, for example, receive assistance through government programmes.
- Sustainability: Illegal deforestation is a major problem within this group, albeit often without them being aware that they are acting illegally.
Indonesia´s response to these challenges is the Jangka Benah Strategy. The term could loosely be translated as “the needed period” and describes a comprehensive effort (technical, social, political) to improve the structure and function of forest ecosystems that have been damaged by palm oil cultivation, especially through the monoculture that usually goes with it.
The Jangka Benah website vividly captures in two images what the approach is all about:
“Tidak” in Indonesian simply means “not”. Thus, the concept of Jangka Benah aims to turn monocultural palm oil plots into diverse agroforestry cultivation, mixing different crops on the same patch of land.
The “normal” in this approach becomes evident when considering that “Agroforestry is a form of local wisdom often selected for household income diversification, making the smallholders less dependent on a single commodity prone to price fluctuations.”
The SawitKita solution
Back to Irvan Bakhtiar and his presentation at the SPOD. The mobile app he demonstrated is called SawitKita and supplements efforts like the Jangka Benah in an ideal way. And it is cleverly named, too. Sawit in Indonesian means palm tree and kita roughly “ours”. In English, the first part of the acronym can be interpreted as Smallholder Assisted with Information Technology.
This electronic platform for mobile phones results from a collaboration between the Faculty of Agriculture at Yogyakarta Agricultural University (INSTIPER), the KEHATI Foundation, and SPOS.
In brief, SawitKita is a digital assistance platform consisting of an expert system, learning media, and a chat function to assist smallholders in improving the implementation of Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Best Management Practices (BMP) in sustainable oil palm cultivation.
At the heart of the app lies SawitKita Learning, which offers a palm oil cultivation learning curriculum in the form of videos and interactive modules. Smallholders can sit for courses that are guided by oil palm plantation industry experts and practitioners.
SawitKita has been implemented for example in a SPOS project in the Central Kalimantan Province. There, in the district of East Kotawaringin, the app was piloted in assisted villages, as the case study ‘Managing Smallholder Palm Oil Plantations: Production Repositioning and Social Transformation‘ explains.
The approach to developing an app to reach palm oil smallholders might just be the right idea. Mobile phones are ubiquitous even in rural areas and their technical features and ease of use make them an ideal tool to spread information, and maintain a conversation with smallholders who are spread out across the numerous Indonesian islands.
However, as Irfan Bakhtiar pointed out in Amsterdam, there are also
obstacles to overcome. An important one is a required cultural change that
helps convert smartphones from a device used mainly for entertainment purposes,
to a tool that supports smallholders not only in increasing their productivity
and income, but also in improving the sustainability of their activities.