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Building a farmer-friendly future: Q&A with CROWDE’s Yohanes Sugihtonugroho

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho, founder of CROWDE.

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho, founder of CROWDE. Image courtesy of Yohanes Sugihtonugroho.

  • Yohanes Sugihtonugroho founded the digital platform CROWDE in 2018 as a way to connect farmers in Indonesia with investors.
  • Agriculture plays a major role in Indonesia’s economy, but farmers remain among the least empowered groups in society, Yohanes says, subjected to unfair trading practices by a system controlled by predatory middlemen.
  • CROWDE provides farmers, especially younger ones, with access to capital, financial advice, and education in harvesting, pest control and market access.
  • CROWDE says it has distributed more than $3.5 million to more than 20,000 farmers, ranchers and fishers across the country, helping boost their income by as much as 150%.

Farming has been radically transformed over the past five decades thanks to technological advances. In Indonesia, the sector is welcoming yet another digital revolution.

Jakarta-born Yohanes Sugihtonugroho set up CROWDE in 2018 to tackle the problems that plague Indonesia’s agricultural sector, starting by assisting small and medium farmers in obtaining capital to expand their businesses.

Through the digital platform, farmers are able to connect directly with investors, and it has since grown into a safe community for both sides to flourish in the modern market.

Indonesia is a major agricultural player, with a population of more than 270 million to feed and an economy reliant on agricultural exports, which makes farmers an important part of the nation’s growth. But in reality, Yohanes says, farmers are still subjected to a system that mistreats them, from high occurrences of fraudulent investments, safety issues, unfair trading practices, to other abuses for little pay.

After spending three months traveling from village to village and living with farmers in West Java province, Yohanes met one who told him he had fallen into the trap of a moneylender, having no other option but to put up his son as collateral. It was experiences like this, Yohanes says, that planted the seed in his head for CROWDE, with which the now-30-year-old seeks to improve the welfare of Indonesian farmers through proper funding — with a clear, comprehensible, transparent process. It invites people to invest or lend money to farmers with a single click. Virtual investors get paid back through a profit-sharing system.

Indonesia is a major agricultural player, with a population of more than 270 million to feed and an economy reliant on agricultural exports, which makes farmers an important part of the nation’s growth. Image by DEZALB via Pixabay.

From 30 farmers or “active borrowers” in 2018 to more than 20,000 across the nation today, the for-profit organization says it has distributed as much as 51 billion rupiah ($3.5 million) in capital to support farmers, ranchers and fishers, and increased their income by 150%.

Yohanes says he aspires to provide a variety of additional services, such as a call center and other guided learning programs for farmers and agronomists. CROWDE also cooperates with several new partners to extend its outreach, offering support ranging from financial advice to education in harvesting, pest control, and market access, especially for younger farmers, to further cultivate a farmer-friendly community across the archipelago.

Mongabay spoke to Yohanes in Jakarta following his selection as part of the 2022 cohort of the Obama Foundation Leaders Asia-Pacific Program, a leadership development and civic engagement initiative.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Mongabay: First of all, congratulations on your achievements and well-deserved recognition. How are you feeling?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: Pretty good. We’re being chosen for specific causes that all have a huge impact, both in the private and public sectors. I’m happy to be a part of it.

Mongabay: What sparked your interest in agriculture, having experienced working as a chili and mushroom farmer?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: I’ve always believed that agriculture is vital for our country. But farmers in Indonesia are not treated fairly by the current system and infrastructure. They are the ones working hard but they hardly receive the appreciation they deserve. Why? I knew something was wrong. After spending some time working in agriculture, I also realized that farming is not an easy job. So the question is, how can I help ease their problems? I cannot solve all of them but I can work toward finding a solution one by one.

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho holds a sapling. Yohanes Sugihtonugroho founded the digital platform CROWDE in 2018 as a way to connect farmers in Indonesia with investors. Image courtesy of Yohanes Sugihtonugroho.

Mongabay: CROWDE was established in 2018 to help resolve the aforementioned problems. Four years on, what would you say are the obstacles that farmers still face today and the biggest improvements you’ve witnessed so far?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: The first problem is financial. Most farmers don’t have access to capital. When we started, we wanted to open the opportunity for them to get funding, be it from technology companies or private investors. There are tens of thousands of farmers looking for investors, and with loan sharks everywhere, we want to help avoid risky investing. Now, farmers need less than three steps to get financial support. Some farmers may need other resources, such as better fertilizers or seeds. But there are farmers who are in possession of these resources but old cultures and behaviors prevent them from moving forward. So we need to create hand-holding activities where we can educate them, how to plant better and how to implement newer techniques and so on. I believe solving these initial problems will create a ripple effect. We try to give our farmers the best access to the market, too.

Mongabay: Surely there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution for an industry as elaborate as farming. How do you, as a platform, understand each farmer’s needs and limitations and offer your support from there?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: Indonesia has a rich culture. The farming culture in Java will be different to Sulawesi’s. So when creating a set of solutions, we have to consider these cultural differences. We don’t want to work without evidence, we always try to learn first from the farmers themselves. What do they feel is the problem? How can we solve it from there? It’s an ongoing collaboration between us and our farmers. And these solutions are applicable to millions of farmers out there as well.

Paddy fields in Indonesia. In addition to giving farmers access to capital, CROWDE also provides other forms of support, ranging from financial advice to education in harvesting, pest control, and market access. Image by Nico_Boersen via Pixabay.

Mongabay: By bridging farmers and investors, would you say CROWDE has helped unlock a new approach to Indonesian agriculture and its digital future? Do you think the sector will continue to grow this way?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: Yes, we have been developing end-to-end processes digitally, and we develop our system using agri-data and extended networks to connect farmers and other agri-stakeholders. This way, we have transparency between all stakeholders, and this helps us to gain trust from farmers and also investors.

Mongabay: How did the platform grow into a safe community for both farmers and investors?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: We can’t convince people to trust us, what we can actually do is provide transparency through IT. Investors can see where the farmers work, what they’re working on, and so on. When harvest time comes, our farmers can connect with the logistics, which will be sent out to a particular warehouse, and everyone involved can see the whole process.

Mongabay: With a population as huge as Indonesia’s, farmers have a crucial role in bringing food security, but the reality seems to be treating them otherwise. How do you think CROWDE has helped instill this important narrative into both farmers and consumers?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: There are several layers to it. The first layer are the older farmers, aged around 40 to 50 years old. Their main focus is themselves and their family, on how to survive day to day. Some would even say, hey I was born and raised to do this and that’s why I’m doing this. The second layer of farmers, the second and third generation of farmers, are the ones we are trying to educate. They are more aware of their role in current society. They ask for advice and so we provide them with the facilities and support. Financial support is the first thing to trigger people to actually jump into the agriculture industry. As you know, there are more than 100,000 university students who are studying agriculture, but some don’t end up contributing anything to farming. Most of them progress to banking or hospitality. So we want to grab the attention of the younger generation and give them a better meaning to farming in Indonesia, especially amid the digital era. It’s not just about working on the field but there are a lot of on-farm and off-farm activities we can to do contribute to food security and to the whole agricultural sector.

Yohanes says CROWDE is trying to give the younger generation the opportunity to explore rural areas and understand that they can make money away from the city. Image by sasint via Pixabay.

Mongabay: How can we encourage the younger generation to farm when there is still a lack of access to land and resources, there are still barriers to entry, and applying for an office job is probably easier?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: There has always been a certain value in working directly with Mother Nature, but one thing that is preventing them is the mindset that they need to work in big cities to get money. We want to change the narrative where, hey, you can get a career even in rural areas. Especially since the pandemic, people can work from anywhere. It’s just about changing that mindset, giving the younger generation the opportunity to explore rural areas and understand that they can make money away from the city. So that thinking is what we’re trying to exercise so far.

Mongabay: In the last three years, CROWDE has grown its coverage area to five major Indonesian islands. Are there specific areas that are in need of your services the most?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: So there are farmers that actually need our services but who live in areas still lacking in infrastructure. For example, in eastern Indonesia, the infrastructure is not quite there yet. So in terms of our services, we have to focus on those who do have the basic facilities but need our support in getting access to the right resources. Farmers in Sumatra and Java have been the ones needing our main operations the most.

Mongabay: Farmers in Indonesia have historically relied on in-person agricultural advice from traditional “experts,” most likely knowledge passed down from generation to generation. How does CROWDE help fill this knowledge gap to help them learn and stay up to date with recent trends?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: Our farmers try their best because they know we don’t only provide financial support but also help on a day-to-day basis to make sure their questions and worries are answered. Working with agriculture, you need to connect several dots. Together we try to find ways to add more value to, say, each harvest or an everyday approach.

Mongabay: In both agriculture and technology, there are many exciting avenues to explore. CROWDE helps farmers in selling at the best prices and profit margins already. What would the future be for CROWDE’s farmers? Will you be working toward more digital solutions?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: We are now still focusing on helping as many farmers as possible in terms of accessing our current technology and capital, since there are still limitations regarding the infrastructure and information and we think that we can still explore more. But indeed in the long run, we do not rule out the possibility of involving famers in more advanced parts of the agri-chain.

Mongabay: What do you think can be done by us, as consumers, to help improve the image and livelihood of farmers?

Yohanes Sugihtonugroho: Always consume local to appreciate their hard work!

Banner image: Yohanes Sugihtonugroho, founder of CROWDE. Image courtesy of Yohanes Sugihtonugroho.