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Indonesian beauty queen founds Indigenous coffee brand in her native Lombok

Mirnawati in front of the ancient Semokan Ruak mosque

Mirnawati in front of the ancient Semokan Ruak mosque in Bayan District while attending the traditional Eid ritual. Photo by Fathul Rakhman/Mongabay Indonesia.

  • Beauty pageant contestant Mahniwati was born into a strong Indigenous community on Indonesia’s Lombok Island.
  • During her pageant activities, Mahniwati saw that despite their wealth of natural resources, the people of her community were often cash poor.
  • Seeing the potential of coffee to improve their livelihoods, she taught herself each step of the coffee value chain.
  • She now shares her knowledge with farmers and promotes coffee produced by local women.

LOMBOK, Indonesia — In the northern foothills of Mount Rinjani, an active volcano, lies a coffee plantation and processing facility that doubles as a training ground. Here, among the arabica trees and crates of ruby-red coffee cherries, Mahniwati, an Indigenous Bayan woman and beauty pageant winner, supports farmers to improve their products and their livelihoods.

The plantation is in Senaru village on the Indonesian island of Lombok. Since the 1970s, Senaru has served as the start of one of six hiking trails to the 3,726-meter (12,224-foot) summit of Rinjani. With hundreds of hikers arriving daily, a large part of the village’s infrastructure is dedicated to tourism, and the main road is lined with restaurants, homestays, hotels and trekking services. But the 2018 earthquake changed everything.

In August that year, a magnitude-7 earthquake struck Lombok and was followed by several aftershocks that were almost as large. The epicenter of the main shock was in Sembulan, just east of Senaru. Five hundred and sixty-three people across the island were killed, and local officials said 80% of public buildings in North Lombok district, where the village lies, were damaged or destroyed. This included Senaru, where tourism was decimated. Not all the damage had been repaired by the time another disaster struck: the COVID-19 pandemic at the start of 2020. This further slowed the sector, and many tourism facilities still have not been rebuilt.

Mahniwati during the coffee drying process in Senaru Village, North Lombok Regency. Photo by Fathul Rakhman/Mongabay Indonesia.

Prior to the earthquake, Senaru’s agricultural land had been abandoned as villagers opted for the more lucrative income from tourism. But after the double crises of the earthquake and COVID-19, residents returned to the land as the foundation of their livelihoods — and to coffee as a lifesaver.

“The only commodity in high demand during the pandemic is coffee,” Mahniwati told Mongabay.

Mahniwati was born and raised in an Indigenous community in North Lombok’s Bayan subdistrict, of which Senaru is a part. The area is home to deep-rooted traditions and is synonymous with wetu telu, an Islamic belief system incorporating ancestral worship whose practitioners pray three times a day, rather than five.

Before she began supporting coffee farmers, Mahniwati was a contestant in the Miss Tourism beauty pageant, organized by the government to promote cultural tourism. She won the title of “favorite” contestant at the provincial level in 2015, and her duties as part of the pageant activities included promoting Bayan’s cultural practices. Through her Miss Tourism platform, she strove to expand people’s often narrow understanding of wetu telu, which she says is often misinterpreted as a heretical form of Islam.

However, Mahniwati said she struggled with the requirements of the role and reached a saturation point. She felt something was missing from her life’s journey. It was during this time that she often noticed the Indigenous people of Lombok were rich in natural resources, but still cash poor.

That’s when she realized the potential of coffee. “Most of the coffee plantations in North Lombok are in Indigenous communities,” Mahniwati said. When she learned the price farmers received for their beans, she was deeply saddened; she knew the price of a cup of coffee at a cafe, and the price of the bags of coffee she often helped promote in her Miss Tourism role.

Mahniwati during the coffee drying process in Senaru Village, North Lombok Regency. Photo by Fathul Rakhman/Mongabay Indonesia.

“Imagine coffee beans being sold by the kilo for 20,000 rupiah [$1.32, or about 60 cents a pound], even though it is high-quality, organic coffee,” she said.

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest coffee producer, much of which it exports. According to official statistics agency, 96.6% is produced by small farmers like those in Bayan. Smallholders most often sell their harvest to big companies via multiple layers of middlemen, which often means they end up with low prices.

Discovering just how low compelled Mahniwati to act. During the challenging period after the earthquake, she taught herself each step of the coffee value chain: maintaining coffee trees, harvesting, post-harvest handling, processing, and marketing. She also gained her barista certification.

Mahniwati often spends time on the plantation accompanying the farmers. Initially she was viewed with suspicion: while more women than men are employed in every stage of the process, the coffee business here has long been seen a man’s business. Mahniwati’s presence, as a scholar and former Miss Tourism, helped rouse this silent majority of women farmers, processors and sellers.

Mahniwati (second from right) with Bayan traditional women during the Maulid Adat ritual in Bayan Village, North Lombok. Photo by Fathul Rakhman/Mongabay Indonesia.

To boost her ability to support them, Mahniwati teamed up with Nursaat, a coffee farmer in Senaru with a home processing facility. At the plantation, and then later at the processing facility, Mahniwati teaches the farmers, who are mostly over the age of 50, the importance of only picking red coffee cherries, how to clean them, remove their skins, dry the beans, and roast them.

“In the past, it was very difficult to ask farmers to only pick red coffee cherries, because it was considered a hassle,” she said. “After a long time they finally understood that the price for red cherries was higher, and then others followed.”

With beans provided by Nursaat, Mahniwati developed the Kon Bayan coffee brand and coffee shop. Kon Bayan has a double meaning: Kon means “at,” so Kon Bayan refers directly to the location. “That’s one of the reasons I used the name Bayan — to show that Bayan has a lot of potential,” Mahniwati said.

Kon is also a combination of the Indonesian words kopi (coffee) and nina (woman), meaning women’s coffee of Bayan. The logo contains a Bayan woman dressed in her distinctive ceremonial clothing with a coffee bean in her outstretched palm.

Banner image: Mirnawati in front of the ancient Semokan Ruak mosque in Bayan District while attending the traditional Eid ritual. Photo by Fathul Rakhman/Mongabay Indonesia.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here on our Indonesian site on Aug. 22, 2022.