Fellow Since 2008
This profile was prepared when Bambang Ismawan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.
Bambang Ismawan offers a wide array of services to rural farmers to improve agricultural production practices and further Indonesia’s development. Throughout Bambang’s career, he has been a pioneer, promoting financial sustainability for citizen-led initiatives.
The New Idea
Bambang initiated the practice of sustainable citizen-led initiatives over forty years ago when he launched a financially sustainable rural development organization, Bina Swadaya. His aim was to answer rural farmer’s need for education, information, and access to goods and services. However, due to the political conditions at the time, Bambang could neither rely on government support or on foreign funding for his work. Along with programs to build self-sufficient communities of rural farmers, Bambang launched a series of revenue-generating companies that also served his larger goal of rural development, including a publishing company to produce and distribute an agricultural magazine, Trubus. Today, Trubus is a leading magazine with 70,000 copies published monthly, and has expanded to cover many fields. Furthermore, Bambang encourages self-reliance by promoting Bina Swadaya as a model for other citizen organizations (COs) and by training community leaders to organize self-help groups. To date, Bina Swadaya has trained over 10,000 community leaders, spawned the creation of more than 12,000 grassroots self-help groups serving 3.5 million people, and launched 650,000 microfinance institutions with 13.5 million members. The organization runs 16 companies, including a franchising operation for agricultural shops that funds almost 95 percent of the organization’s operations.
During the Suharto regime (1968 to 1998) in Indonesia, a large portion of the population lived on subsistence agriculture. As such, there was great need for the implementation of effective economic development programs. While farmer’s organizations existed, they lacked access to vital agribusiness information and microfinance services. Previously existing social assistance programs were generally based on giving hand-outs to rural farmers; an approach now considered both unsustainable and a disempowering means of development.Despite the urgent need for economic development during this time, the public was limited in its ability to respond to society’s needs. Due to political forces at play, COs working for the country’s development were viewed and treated as threats by the regime. As a result, there was little stability with respect to funding from foreign sources for civil society initiatives. To make matters more difficult, popular opinion at that time found it inappropriate for organizations working for the public’s good to earn a profit. In fact, a lack of understanding of the importance of financial sustainability in building strong COs permeated Indonesian culture. This sentiment is felt even today; although the law allows COs to have earned-income activities, only 35 percent have established local revenue streams.
Bambang founded Bina Swadaya in 1967 as a community development organization to provide education, products, and services to rural farmers. The organization arose out of the Pancasila social movement and the Pancasila Farmer’s Association, of which Bambang was president. Today, Bina Swadaya employs over 1,000 staff and operates almost entirely on earned revenue from its 16 socially-oriented companies with a budget over 300B rupiahs (US$33M) per year.Through Bina Swadaya, Bambang began publishing Trubus, an agricultural magazine aimed to improve rural farmer’s productivity by providing them with a source of information about agricultural practices and promoting the concept of agribusiness. Trubus has since become the market leader in agricultural publications and its parent company has flourished, publishing 1,246 agricultural books, 606 titles in other areas, and offering printing services to other organizations. After the publishing company, Bambang launched companies under the Bina Swadaya umbrella, all of which answered a need that became apparent to him as he became more involved in the sector. For instance, he launched an agricultural shop selling tools, seeds, fertilizers, and other farming products because magazine subscribers wrote to ask where they could purchase these items. By 2006, Bambang operated ten large outlets across Indonesia, and today he is franchising these shops as a means to create jobs in the agricultural sector. Among his other companies, he started an ecotourism business that focuses on local and international destinations, and a business which provides workshop facilities to companies and other organizations.In addition to the companies created under the guidance of the organization, the heart of Bina Swadaya is rooted in community empowerment programs. Bambang organizes rural farmers into self-help groups, while community leaders are trained in agribusiness and entrepreneurship and are encouraged to promote self-sufficiency among their groups. Bina Swadaya members are given access to savings and low interest loan services through locally-run microfinance organizations operating in partnership with several large Indonesian banks. A clear sign of this program’s success among local microfinance organizations, a 97 percent repayment rate, however, for those who find themselves in financial hardship, Bambang has added a credit insurance scheme to this service.Bambang recently signed over direct oversight of Bina Swadaya to another chairman, and took the position of chairman of the organization’s advisory board. Though Bambang’s work is internationally renowned, he is looking to spread his ideas about self-reliance to more directly address rural development issues beyond Indonesia.
Bambang was raised in East Java by parents who encouraged his independent personality. His mother, a social activist in the Indonesia Women’s Union in the 1930s and 1940s, passed on to Bambang her concern for the public good.In university, Bambang pursued studies in economics and agriculture. He was active in student organizations, but it was not until he met Father John Dijkstra, a Dutch priest, that he was inspired to devote himself to the economic development of poor Indonesian farmers. Father Dijkstra was working to empower the rural poor in the dry coastal region of Gunung Kidul, and taught Bambang that the most effective way to help people was not simply to give them things, but to support them with information and skills.Bambang was active in the Pancasila Farmer’s Association, a social movement of farmers and laborers working for community empowerment and Indonesian independence. In 1964, at age twenty-seven, Bambang was elected president of the Association. Three years later, to address the needs of rural farmers and improve rural production practices, Bambang founded Bina Swadaya.