Yoseph Leribun, a young Catholic in Flores, East Nusa Tenggara province, is helping farmers by showing them how to exploit opportunities in Indonesia's tourist boom. (Photo supplied)
An eagerness to improve the lives of farmers trapped in poverty was the main driving force for Yoseph Leribun to return to his hometown.
He packed up everything and left Jakarta in 2012 after enjoying a career as a journalist and headed to Labuan Bajo on Flores Island in Christian-majority East Nusa Tenggara province.
Hailing from a farming family, Leribun realized his call was to improve the lives of thousands of farmers who struggled to meet everyday needs and pay for their children's education.
“They have been in this kind of situation for a long time, not knowing how to maximize their existing potential,” the 29-year-old said.
East Nusa Tenggara province has a population of 5.2 million, of which 55.4 percent are Catholics, and about 1.1 million are considered poor.
The Indonesian government ranks the province third out of 34 provinces in terms of poverty after Papua and West Papua.
In West Manggarai district, where Leribun hails from, 42 percent of the population are listed as poor, mostly farmers.
It is a sad reality considering that Labuan Bajo, the district capital, has been transformed into a modern tourist area, famous for its Komodo dragons, beautiful islands and snorkeling sites.
It is also attracting huge investment for mega-projects such as an airport, seaport, hotels and resorts.
Last year, about 84,000 tourists visited the area and the government is looking to raise that figure to at least 500,000 in the next few years.
Sadly, said Leribun, such rapid development has further marginalized local people, mostly farmers.
“I was surprised to learn that vegetables and meat supplies for hotels and resorts came from other regions, not from the locals,” he said.
It prompted him to study the food supply chain and gradually develop new ways of farming that would enable farmers to become key players in the tourism industry, not spectators.
At the end of 2012 Leribun started a vegetable garden using organic fertilizer, also raising pigs and chickens. Having had no formal training, he relied solely on available literature and tutorials on the internet. A few months later, his small project turned out successful and inspired other farmers to copy his methods.
Leribun then trained the farmers and provided them with small capital to do it on their own. It did not take much time for each farmer to earn a monthly profit of US$70-100 from selling vegetables to the public and restaurants.
Seeing the potential, Leribun then established Kampung Ternak or livestock village where he and dozens of farmers raise chickens, pigs and catfish to be supplied to local restaurants and homes.
Leribun’s success in empowering farmers caught the attention of the Daya Pertiwi Foundation, a non-profit group engaged in developing village community economies. This group provides financial assistance and training for Leribun’s community and in 2015 appointed him its project manager.
His endeavors were further recognized and in 2016 he was selected as one of 10 “young farmer ambassadors” by several NGOs, including Oxfam.
Since then he has been involved in a nationwide campaign promoting the importance of agriculture to young people.
Convince young people
Many young people think that being a farmer is not a worthwhile profession. Hence, in villages on Flores Island, many youngsters prefer becoming motor-taxi drivers, while others choose to be migrant workers.
“This has seen the number of farmers decrease significantly and affects agricultural output,” said Leribun.
According to the Ministry of Agriculture shows that of 26.3 million farm households, 65 percent of farmers are over 45 years old, and there are no signs of regeneration.
Now it’s one of Leribun’s jobs to convince young people that being a farmer is a promising job, as long as they know how to do it, which is to follow his advice.
Gregorius Afioma, director of Sunspirit for Justice and Peace, a non-governmental organization that advocates local community rights, said it is not easy to convince young people to work on farms because much land has lost its fertility due to excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides since the 1980s.
He also criticized the government for leaving out farmers in its massive tourism development drive.
“What Leribun has done highlights the government’s ignorance,” he said
Bone Juang, 52, said since he started working with Leribun in 2012, he has earned a steady income from cultivating livestock.
It enabled him to send his eldest daughter to university. She graduated last year, while his other two children are now studying at university.
"I feel lucky to have met him," he said. "My mind is really open on how to use opportunities to make money.”
Similarly, Liborius Trisnyoman Bisaend, who was previously unemployed, earns US$88 in profit per month from selling chickens.
"I believe this business bodes well for my future," the 29-year-old said.
Leribun said more young farmers will join his group in the coming years. He is currently involved in training programs for farmers in a number of villages.
“There’s a long way to go, but nothing is impossible,” he said.