Helianti Hilman: Preserving Indonesia’s Food Biodiversity

Story By
Susanna Tjokro

Helianti Hilman, with her company JAVARA Indigenous Indonesia, is helping to ensure the survival of Indonesia’s food biodiversity by creating a sustainable source of income for farmers. Today, JAVARA goods are available on five continents and there are 53 countries in total that sell its products.

JAVARA is a pioneer in the business of Indonesia’s forgotten food and is the brainchild of Helianti Hilman. Her strong sense of responsibility to preserve Indonesia’s food biodiversity as well as to sustain the farmers led her to establish JAVARA in 2008.

This social enterprise currently works hand-in-hand with 52,000 farmers across Indonesia, producing 900 artisanal products; 250 of which are certified organic in accordance with international organic standards, including the U.S. and the European Union. The goods, which show Indonesia’s agricultural richness, come in all shapes and sizes, such as rice, floral salt, sago starch flour, virgin coconut oil, red rice vinegar, honey, coconut biscotti, gourmet veggie noodle, coconut jam, foxtail millet, chia seeds, and coconut cooking oil, among others.

JAVARA, which is Sanskrit for champion, lives up to its brand name as its products are on a par with the best in the world. Helianti started exporting JAVARA goods in 2011 by sending its coconut sugar to Belgium. Today JAVARA’s items are available in 53 countries, including Japan, Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, South Africa and the U.S.

In 2014, most of JAVARA’s products, 90 % in total, were sold to the overseas market. Since many of JAVARA’s buyers are from Australia and the U.S., Helianti plans to open bespoke JAVARA stores in those countries.

However, Helianti notes that to be sustainable in business, the local market must absorb JAVARA goods, too. She has had to awaken an interest in local produce, a “duty” that entails a lot of hard work. Back in 2008, while Indonesians were perfectly willing to pay premium prices for imported items, they generally perceived Indonesian goods as cheap commodities hence premium Indonesian organic products were not popular.

Helianti had to educate the local market about the value of JAVARA products, which was easier said than done and it took time for Indonesians to embrace locally produced premium goods. Now that all of her hard work has come to fruition, JAVARA products are in demand in both local and international markets – currently, 45 % of its items are sold to the local market.

JAVARA has opened its first concept store in Kemang, Jakarta. Unlike traditional bricks-and-mortar stores, this store has gone beyond selling goods, as it offers discovery and experience too. People can discover unique items, buy the goods, eat and savour the produce at its restaurant as well as learn how to cook the food at its kitchen – all under one roof. After the success of its concept store in Jakarta, the brand plans to open concept stores in Bali and Semarang.

In line with Helianti’s mission to nurture young people to go back to farming, Helianti established Sekolah Seniman Pangan  (School of Food Artisans) also known as the JAVARA Academy, in 2017. Located in Bekasi, West Java, it is an action-based platform that nurtures the entrepreneurial skills, creativity and resilience among young farmers, fishermen and foragers. The opening of the JAVARA Academy in Jailolo (Maluku), Flores (East Nusa Tenggara), Toba (Sumatera) and Papua are in the pipeline.

What started as Helianti’s personal initiative to preserve Indonesia’s heritage food has evolved into a lucrative business opportunity that creates a sustainable source of income for the farmers. It is important for Helianti that JAVARA not only has a positive impact on the environment by producing organic goods, but also on the livelihood of farmers.

Helianti preserves Indonesia’s food biodiversity and also shows JAVARA products are proven quality Indonesian produce with the potential to compete in international markets.