​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Palm Sugar is "Sweeter"​ When Shared

Indonesia​     English​


Bulu Mario Village, located at the outskirts of Sibualbuali Nature Reserve, Sipirok Sub-district, South Tapanuli District, is a beautiful village surrounded by natural forests, sugar palm plantation forests, and smallholder rice fields. Sugar palm trees make up the village’s forest habitat and grow naturally supported by fertile soil and high rainfall at approx. 2000-3000 mm per year, with an 800 meter above sea level altitude. These sugar palm trees grow and propagate naturally, with civets helping scatter their seeds or water washing them away during the rainy season.

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EditDescription:Iran Rambe taps sugar palm trees.
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Kholis Siregar, former chief of Bulu Mario village who served for 2 periods (2004–2014), shared his experience building the palm sugar business in his village. "Sugar palm farmers used to work alone, using traditional practices and time-consuming processes, so the result was not worth the effort," he began his story.

"Here, sugar palm farming has been passed down among the locals as livelihoods from generation to generation. I have data showing that 350 or 90% of the family heads in this village are palm sugar farmers and manufacturers. The plan grow naturally, each community plantation forest covers an area of 1-2 hectares on average, with approx. 100-300 trees in total. In a day, a sugar palm farmer can tap 2-4 trees.

For years, they processed sugar palm trees traditionally, or went deep to the forests to tap wild sugar palm trees. The tapped palm sugar was then processed into molded sugar. It was economically unsatisfactory. It requires up to 5 hours a day to make molded sugar, and they were sold for only IDR 11,000-13,000/kg. After spending a long time tapping and processing, they had no time to do other farming activities.

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In early 2015, the Masarang Sulawesi Foundation explored potential natural resources in landscapes surrounding Bulu Mario Village. They noticed the great potentials of community plantation forest for further development, including palm sugar and its processing.

In April 2015, the foundation, led by Marthin Polii, ST, provided a know-how training to boost palm juice production (red: palm juice is the sweet liquid tapped from the trunk) using proper techniques, such as tapping, slicing, maintaining clean palm juice container and palm sugar processing, to 30 village farmers for about a year.

After the training, the farmers felt motivated to improve their tapping techniques and maintain clean working tools to prevent contaminated palm juice, making it easier to lower the acidity level. But, they did not go as far as manufacturing crystal palm sugar because tools such as standard stove, drying oven, sugar sieve, etc. were unaffordable.

But, I had a different idea. I evaluated the farmers' meager financial condition and the fact that they spent 100% of their time to tap and process palm sugar into molded sugar. I decided to learn and gain more knowledge from Mr. Bambang (red: Bambang Heri Santoso, an expert in palm juice production). He worked with the Masarang Foundation providing training and continued to voluntarily mentor sugar palm farmers after the training ended.

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​​Mr. Bambang encouraged and told me about the economic potentials of palm sugar and crystal palm sugar processing. I was invited to see Mr. Fahmi's processing model (red: Fahmi Anto Simatupang is a palm sugar and crystal palm sugar manufacturer) from the neighboring sub-district, Arse Sub-District. He had been producing palm sugar for 3.5 years, but was still overwhelmed by market demand. I became much more encouraged to start a palm sugar and crystal palm sugar business to meet market demand, including to support Mr. Fahmi.

With the sugar palm farmers group, I discussed my idea and plan of building a production center where farmers could bring in palm juice to be produced together in groups. The result was two palm sugar and crystal palm sugar processing centers. Then, learning from field trips, I modified the oven to become better, more efficient, fuel-efficient, and simpler. The result was clean palm juice, free of smoke or other impurities. Another lesson I learned was to build unity within the sugar palm farmers group to promote mutual benefit and cooperation.

With support and facilitation from Mr. Bambang, we formed Sobar Sipirok Sugar Palm Farmers Group and UD Sobar. Using simple sieves and small-capacity ovens, we started this business. The two sugar processing centers have a capacity of 120 liters each, or equals to 15 kg of crystal palm sugar per day.

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Now, we produce up to 2 tons of palm sugar a week for IDR 12,500/kg, while the crystal palm sugar business is less productive, with approx. 30 kg/day at IDR 40,000/kg. Each center has 10 sugar palm farmers working and focusing only on tapping and maintaining fresh quality palm juice at an acidic pH level and sugar level/brix of 14 (red: brix is the sweetness level of palm sugar measured using a refractometer). Mr. Iran Rambe and I are responsible for managing a center each.

We do not stop at production. We also have Sertifikat Produksi Industri Rumah Tangga (Domestic Industrial Production Certificate), a processed food product certificate for small/household businesses, from the Health Office. We also have our own label and packaging.

They (red: the farmers group) feel more content now. Because work is done in groups, they have more free time and can help their spouse farming in rice fields. We even help Mr. Fahmi increase his supply. I have a dream that one day more farmers will process their palm juice into crystal palm sugar at the centers," Kholis ended his story.

 

Note: Masarang Foundation Sulawesi is a local partner of Conservation International in the Sustainable Landscapes Partnership (SLP) program that supports farmer's capacity building for palm sugar tapping and processing.

Isner Manalu is a SLP Senior District Program Coordinator, CI Indonesia. ​(December 23​, 2016)