In 2001, while on a business trip to Jakarta, Bart, our CEO, became acquainted with two Indonesian businessmen, Ong Wen Ping and Prananto Nugroho. The two of them had been close friends for many years and worked for big corporations. Then, while sampling a never ending variety of Indonesian and Chinese dishes, the idea of setting up a candle factory together popped up.
As a matter of fact, both friends were looking forward to get out of corporate Indonesia and start a new business on their own. Ping (of Chinese descent, so his given name appears at the end of his full name) also wanted to go back to the town of Madiun in rural East Java, where he grew up. Coincidentally, Bart’s mother, daughter of a Dutch engineer in the former "Dutch" Indies was also born in East Java, in a town just a few miles from there.
It quickly became apparent to all three that this was, indeed, not a bad idea at all: this Fair Trade type of factory would use only simple candle making tools developed by Bart, no heavy machinery, and Java is famous for the quality of its crafts people. Also, it would provide work for people in a rural area, where jobs for a decent pay are scarce, which is why so many flock to the big cities.
Access to raw materials and glassware is also excellent in Indonesia, especially since all our candles are made with palm oil, one of the main crops in that part of the world.
In the months that followed, Ping set about looking for a good location for the new factory and found an older commercial facility for rent, alongside a main highway. These "main" highways in rural areas are no more than narrow two-lane roads, used by everything that moves: from goats grazing the grass on the shoulder within inches of traffic to swarms of small motorcycles, buses, tractors, donkeys and, crucial to our purposes, trucks that can haul sea freight containers.
Ping and his new-found crew started renovations to ensure safe working conditions and also created a guest house for workers coming from further away.
Meanwhile, in California, a complete set of candle making equipment was produced with the help of our friend Bud Boyce, who, already in his late seventies, still runs a metal workshop right across from our factory on Main Street, Lower Lake. Then everything was put in a container and shipped to Indonesia.
A few weeks later, it arrived in the Javanese port of Surabaya, but it took twice as long to get this strange, obviously not "off-the-shelf" equipment through customs.
Once everything had arrived at the new factory site, Bart made another trip to Java to help with the installation and to train the 30-odd new candle makers that had been hired. He was impressed with the dedication and quiet concentration of these people, and also with the gentleness with which they treat one another and their sense of humor. Stress seemed to be an utterly foreign concept to them.
When it comes to the quality of their candles, they are unmatched. Because they take their time and their movements are very steady and precise.
Learning how to fit in with the local economy
Within a year or so, there were over a hundred people employed and the little factory started to gain recognition, and even attracted attention from The Body Shop and other Fair Trade conscious retailers. Being located in a traditional, rural area, literally surrounded by rice and sugar cane fields, we discovered that we had to be careful about how we advertised for new employees. Word quickly spread about the good working conditions and the factory was flooded with applications. Other local businesses started to complain that we were offering wages and benefits that they could not match. The reason for this is that these other businesses are focused on the relatively poor regional markets, whereas Ping and Prananto’s factory serves the wealthy Western economies.
So now we try to focus on "secondary" benefits instead, like a 35 hour work week, paid holidays, health insurance and such, rather than offering a monthly wage that would be disruptive to the local fabric of society. Still, the fact that our factory is considered "industrial manufacturing" by the government (even though all products are hand made), enables us to pay the official minimum wage, which is about twice what most local small businesses can afford to pay their workers.
As sales increased, and more and more new candles were added to the assortment, we started to look for a larger production space. When the landlord announced that he would triple the rent the following year, we decided to purchase a plot of land nearby to build a new facility from scratch. This is not an easy thing to do in rural Java, because few parcels are for sale and we did not want to convert good farm land for commercial use. And we really wanted to avoid areas prone to flooding. Java is mostly flat, with a few big volcanic mountains, and when the tropical rains hit, floods are common. In fact, the last time Bart was there, some employees were marooned in their houses, with the water right at their door step. No traffic was possible, but they stayed in touch with Ping by cell phone, in case an emergency evacuation would become necessary. Fortunately, this flood started to recede the next day.
Building and opening the new factory
Eventually a suitable location was found on the other side of the town, also along a main highway. Within six months, Ping, using his extensive network of local suppliers and tradesmen, had erected a spacious production hall with 20 foot ceilings, an office building and a boarding house.
There was, however, one little problem: on several occasions, ghosts were seen in the new office, once by a female security guard who saw a ghost waving at her from the hallway. Another spirit was in the habit of walking in Ping’s office and knocking on walls in the middle of the night, as reported by a carpenter who slept there during construction. Consequently, Prananto’s father, who is both a retired university professor and an accomplished psychic, was asked to come and talk to the spirits and, hopefully, convince them to find a home elsewhere. And so it happened: Prananto’s father came, performed some rituals, and no spirit ever appeared again, much to the relief of everybody. Any lingering fear of malevolent intent vanished when, a few months later, a near catastrophe took place. A heavy truck, ready to load up on candles, accidentally rolled down the driveway, onto the highway and into the rice paddy on the other side, it’s rear end still blocking half the highway. Somebody had forgotten to pull the hand brake! But miraculously, there had been a lull in the stream of traffic, a pretty rare event in day time, so nobody was hurt.
World fairs and candles for the Indonesian market
The new factory has been in operation for a few years now, and, despite the recession, it is steadily growing. The company has participated, based on its merits as a fair trade employer and its original products, in a Dutch government program supporting third world business initiatives. This program, called CBI and based in Rotterdam, offers free business consulting and some financial support to participate in the world trade fair of Frankfurt, Germany. Another interesting fact is that sales to the local (Indonesian) market are also increasing. Ping and Prananto developed an inexpensive but attractive palm wax candle assortment. To deal with the frequent power outages, people buy lots of "emergency" candles, which we make out of recycled palm wax.
Using solar energy and planning vegetable gardens
In the near future, we are installing our first solar hot-water heater for the factory. We found an Indonesian company (WIKA) which produces them. As for heating of the palm wax, we are researching a type of solar oven which would heat batches of palm wax directly. The other requirement we have is that this system would have to be produced and maintained locally. Photovoltaic cells (solar cells that produce electricity) are not very efficient in Indonesia because of the frequent tropical cloud cover and the hazy, humid air.
There are also plans to expand the grounds of the factory and we already purchased an adjacent plot, where we want to install the solar ovens and create a vegetable garden. Because of the climate and the rich volcanic soil, everything grows at an incredible speed: a banana tree will start producing within 6 months! The local people often cultivate small plots of land around their houses, where they can grow a variety of fruit and vegetables.
Environmentally responsible palm oil production
Ever since 2001, we have avoided buying palm wax from Indonesian companies which, with their aggressive expansion, threaten parts of the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra and other islands. Ideally, we would like to use the palm oil coming from small, traditional plantations, which have existed around villages for many decades. Unfortunately, up until now, the oil refineries have shown no interest in treating this "eco"-oil with the respect it deserves and have mixed it in with the oils from the big producers.
Our solution has been to import the palm wax from well known, environmentally responsible plantations in Malaysia and, in smaller amounts, from certified organic plantations in Brazil.
In recent years, the Indonesian palm oil industry has begun to show some concern for the ecological effects of ruthless expansion of palm oils plantations. However, before we consider purchasing palm oil in Indonesia, we would like to see clearer evidence that no more virgin rain forest is being cut. As a matter of fact, there are huge areas of land that have been cleared by logging companies all over Indonesia, before the moratorium on logging instated a few years ago. Why not use those areas for palm oil trees?
We are convinced that oil palm trees, which yield 10 times more oil than most other oil crops, are ideal for Indonesia, and it is very possible to grow them in an ecologically and socially responsible manner. Proof of this can be found around many villages in Sumatra, for example.
So we keep putting the same questions to the refineries and the plantations. Our impression is that they are beginning to understand that it may make very good business sense to go "green", saving on expensive fertilizers and pesticides and getting a good price for eco palm oil.