Vinsensius Nurak, a farmer’s son, realized that food insecurity and deteriorating livelihoods will continue to plague rural families in the world’s arid lands as long as agricultural and development agencies continue to see them as mere beneficiaries to receive training. Instead, he is putting farmers in Eastern Indonesia in charge of transforming their dry and degraded land into healthy forests that produce food year-round and drive economic growth in the region.

This profile below was prepared when Vinsensius Nurak was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.


Vinsensius Nurak, a farmer’s son, realized that food insecurity and deteriorating livelihoods will continue to plague rural families in the world’s arid lands as long as agricultural and development agencies continue to see them as mere beneficiaries to receive training. Instead, he is putting farmers in Eastern Indonesia in charge of transforming their dry and degraded land into healthy forests that produce food year-round and drive economic growth in the region.


In place of a common view of poor rural communities as a development problem in need of fixing, Vinsensius, known as “Vinsen,” saw the opportunity for farmers to be empowered to solve their own problems if given the appropriate support. Centered on the farmer and their potential to manage their own economic resources—in this case land—more effectively, Vinsen’s approach promotes farmer agency, helping farmers build a perspective of the future and fostering collective strategies for confronting the challenges facing their communities. He has done this by examining, together with the farmers, their existing know-how and also addressing the gaps in their skills, by adding assistants who live in the villages he is reconsituting a role designed by the government but never implemented successfully, and by experimenting with new ideas that the farmers have chosen and thus own. The farmers are responsible for designing the technical assistance they receive. With success is the confidence Vinsen saw as their greatest need, and the ability to spread their know-how to others. 

Through this simple shift in agency, the transformative technologies like agroforestry systems to increase food security and reverse environmental degradation have, for the first time in Indonesia’s dry Eastern islands, fertile ground to take hold. To date, over thirteen thousand farming families working through twenty-five farming associations in four districts across East Nusa Tenggara province and the neighboring country of East Timor have now shifted their destructive slash-and-burn farming to sedentary and sustainable agroforestry systems. Vinsen’s organisation, Yayasan Mitra Tani Mandiri (YMTM)/Self-reliant Farmers Partnership, has mobilized farmers to collectively market their goods, manage savings and loans mechanisms, advance post-harvest food processing, harvest water through catchment dams, and succeed in cow fattening management. As a result, farming productivity and household incomes have increased by 30 percent, food gaps have been eliminated and children’s nutrition has improved. Moreover, what was once a dry, eroded and degradated region is now green, fertile, and productive. Underlying the visible change is a deep transformation: the role of farmers who have reversed their own exclusion by participating as economic actors, stewards of their natural resources, and citizens: some farmers are now stepping forward as candidates for local agricultural policymaking bodies. It is this fundamental element that has attracted the attention of government and citizen organizations (COs) alike, now partnering with YMTM to spread his idea throughout the province and beyond.


Eighty-seven million of Indonesia’s 230 million people are food-insecure, and Indonesia’s eastern province of East Nusa Tenggara Timur (NTT) is one of the country’s most insecure. In the drought-prone rural province of 4.5 million people spread out over 50 islands, the average per capita income is US$265 a year, which is well below the poverty line. Roughly 70 percent of the population relies on agriculture for their livelihoods, with few succeeding in producing beyond their own subsistence. A 2009 government study showed that NTT province possessed Indonesia’s highest rates of child malnutrition with 46.7 percent under five years of age chronically malnourished (compared to the national average of 36.8 percent) and 20 percent acutely malnourished (compared to a 13.6 percent national average). The cause for the malnutrition is food insecurity and feeding practices.

The current agriculture practices of rural families lead to severe environmental degradation that is aggravated by extreme and erratic weather conditions in recent years associated with climate change. With slash-and-burn and shifting cultivation as the primary farming systems used, land is aggressively cultivated and exhausted of its nutrients in only a few years, forcing farmers to abandon the plots for as much as a decade. Those familiar systems also reduce productivity per hectare: the depleted land requires about ten times the area compared to an irrigated system, to produce the same volume of food. At best, a family employing slash-and-burn and shifting cultivation methods can only produce ten months of food. As weather extremes like erratic and higher intensity rainfall coupled with prolonged periods of drought have increased in the region, the productivity in some areas for these farmers has decreased to seven months. 

The problem of poor farming practices and resulting food insecurity persists because government and relief organizations’ interventions rely on outside inputs that either don’t match the needs of farmers or arrive at the wrong time to be effective. External interventions designed by distant agencies are often short-lived, ill-timed and punctuated by gaps caused by project funding cycles. For instance, an approach by the government to increase farm productivity through promoting hybrid maize that relies on external seed inputs can be rendered ineffective when seeds arrive too late for the planting time that would yield the higher productivity results. Though many local and international COs have worked with farmers to improve farming productivity, they are still sporadic across the area and often put on hold when project funding ends and fundraising is still underway for the next stage of the intervention. Often times too, the type of intervention is so limited in scope, like a garden project, that it is too small to make systemic change. Even in the cases when farm productivity is increased through a project intervention, the value of the results does not match the costs of the inputs. Value for farmers can be lost to middlemen by farmers who are forced to rely on them because of isolation and lack of means for transporting their individual surplus to market. Those farmers who do attempt to access financing to get their produce to markets often get trapped by the high interest rates from money lenders, their only source for capital. 

In none of these interventions are farmers seen as actors capable of “fixing” their own problems by managing their economic and social resources more effectively and supplying their own inputs to improve their livelihoods. Technical support alone does not tap that latent capacity. Particularly in the context of a rapidly changing global economy and climate change, the skills needed to steward one’s individual and group resources, and adapt to change creatively is a crucial missing link to traditional approaches aimed at improving livelihoods of farming communities.


Vinsen’s organization, YMTM, was founded in 1997 and has approximately 100 staff, including field staff. Vinsen is Executive Director. His approach transforms the subsistence farming system by building skills at every level where farmers working with YMTM identify need. Over time the changed behaviors become honed through experiment. At the same time, as failure or changes (such as reduced rainfall) occur, the farmer groups develop an ethos of identifying and actively addressing their problems. 

Basic to the changes they have developed is a shift from slash-and-burn practice by individuals to diversified agroforestry systems practiced by organized groups. The agroforestry ensures an improved and sustained livelihood through products harvested at different times throughout the year. Vinsen, always working with the farmers, has added an evolving series of high-impact additional improvements—e.g. savings and loan schemes, gender equality in leadership, collective marketing of goods, and livestock management, that contribute to a virtuous cycle of health and educational improvements across the communities that reinforce the economic revitalization of the village. Key to his strategy is that farmers lead the change on the ground. Instead of competing against one another for increasingly scarce and degraded land, Vinsen’s team works with the farmers to gain collective understanding of common challenges and opportunities that form the basis for farmers to establish a working group. As part of the group, each farmer’s household sets up their own farming plan to maximize their land through sustainable agroforestry production and share it with the group. The group then develops a joint plan incorporating a collective understanding of the technical resources they have and need to achieve the plan. The farmers group is put in charge of the approval of a field worker from YMTM who lives in the village to accompany them in their plan and provides them with technical support in new farming techniques and skill-building on individual and group capacity. The field worker is demonstrating why a government-backed mandate to have agro representatives in the field hasn’t worked: none of the representatives were willing to live in the villages. Farmers groups from across the villages lead participatory cross monitoring among the groups twice a year to see the development of their farming practices and provide feedback to each other. 

With the new land use system, farmers combine three main components: long-term growth trees to produce nuts and timber, seasonal food crops (maize, tubers, beans, and peanuts) and livestock. Implementation of the new system requires three sequential reinforcing stages. First, to prepare the fields, farmers terrace the land along its contour and plant legume trees to reduce soil erosion and increase nitrogen content in the soil. The terracing also functions as a canal system to direct water through the dry land and increase soil fertility. The legumes then serve as animal feed to stimulate livestock rearing and cattle fattening activities which to date has increased livestock prices three-fold. The livestock produce manure that is recycled as organic fertilizer where farmers then use it to begin the crops farming on the terraced land. Before planting the seeds, Vinsen’s team helps farmers identify characteristics of the land, market opportunities, needs in nutrition, and weather forecasting. Farmers then utilize this data to develop a land use plan, such as selecting crops, planting time, and crop location. Since farmers are no longer forced to abandon unfertile fields and migrate further to clear new land every two to three years, they have new space to plant trees as long-term investment and conservation. To date, farmers have planted 6.5 million trees consisting of cashew, candlenuts, fruit trees, timber trees, and legume trees. This model therefore provides slope stability and reduces soil erosion and results in a stable, sustainable farming system that preserves the biodiversity of the ecosystem. Vinsen is currently developing a mechanism for farmers to be able to do long-lead climate forecasting and develop local coping and adaptation strategies to avoid crops failure.

Vinsen’s team works with farmers to develop crop storage systems and collective marketing schemes to channel increasing crop yields into greater income. Building on the collective plans of the farmers groups and specific needs, they develop solutions for storage at the family, group, and village levels. With the ability to store crops and sell when prices are more favorable, farmer groups then have a greater incentive to collectively market their products and increase their bargaining power in the face of middlemen known to cheat them at the scales. They’ve initiated the custom of bringing their own scales to limit one more risk of losing hard-won gains through a faulty system. Village farmer groups are invited to establish farmer associations as means for collective marketing with transparent and democratic governance structures. Elected association representatives negotiate with buyers on behalf of the farmers and conduct active market price surveys resulting in increased bargaining power of farmers to get higher prices. Almost 300 farmer groups formed twenty-five farmer group associations across over 100+ villages in four districts in NTT province. 

To encourage farmers to manage income wisely, Vinsen’s team works with the farmer groups to established farmer-managed village savings and loans units. These units allow farmers to obtain soft loans for urgent matters or seed capital for their new businesses; releasing farmers from high-interest money lenders. Farmer groups across 100 villages have created twenty-seven saving and loan groups with seed capital collected by the villagers generating a total cash flow of IDR 450 million (US$50,000). 

Vinsen’s model also facilitates women’s’ leadership to develop skills in post-harvest food processing to increase the value of marketable goods. Field workers work with the farmer’s groups to promote nutrition courses to ensure that the greater diversity of food crops and vegetables are prepared in a way that preserves and promotes nutritional consumption patterns. The farmer’s working with YMTM benefit from an innovative focus that addresses agricultural production and nutrition together to determine what besides the basic crops, they are growing that their people, especially children, need to thrive. Midwives in the village clinics now have an added role in monitoring children’s nutrition and advising changes. From a food consumption aspect, it is expected that the implementation of this initiative would contribute to the decreased percentage of infant malnutrition cases from 35 percent to 20 percent. The government has chosen to modify its aid practices in the region so that food aid will be given only to farmers who adopt practices being demonstrated by the YMTM farmer groups. 

Vinsen has fostered an ethos of measuring impact to know what efforts produce more than they cost, and how much improvement can be measured. These instincts to measure are part of how he evaluates his expansions effectiveness. He is determined that the practices that have demonstrably improved life for the Timorese and East Timorese farmers will migrate to other areas that need them. Vinsen has assessed the relative costs and benefits of spreading through family ties/word of mouth, the farmer groups, government, like-minded COs, and religious leaders. There are benefits to all, but in his analysis farmers’ groups are the most cost-effective leaders in dissemination, partly because what they do can be directly measured.

To further his work, Vinsen and his colleagues developed a program to help government officials and selected COs understand and adopt the farmer-led model for transforming farming systems. The program is currently supporting and monitoring the expansion of the model by COs from provinces across Indonesia and East Timor. The East Teggara Timur province has called for the adoption of the model across all its districts and Vinsen is currently lobbying the provincial governor and the Ministry of Welfare for potential nationwide replication.


When Vinsen was young and growing up in a farming village in the NTT province of Indonesia, he remembers the uncertainty of whether there would be maize for that day’s meal. In the months following harvest, the family enjoyed a modest three meals a day but during many months of the year, eating three times a day was a luxury. Vinsen helped his parents with the farm and spent his primary school holidays selling rice in the local market. It frustrated him to see his parents cheated on prices and taken advantage of by those with more education, so he worked very hard in school with the goal to take his family out of this vulnerable situation. 

Struggling to balance his studies and support his family, Vinsen succeeded in graduating high school and set his sights on university. Studying agriculture was the only viable option in the capital of his province, since he could not afford to leave the island for Java. Although he initially sought to leave his farming background, through the support of professors he began to see his roots as an advantage to turning around the poverty and insecurity of his family and other farming families. With a full scholarship, Vinsen carried out research for his professors in rural communities. He saw the similar pattern of isolated farmers struggling to produce beyond subsistence, only to have no market for their products, or be forced by powerful commercial interests to accept prices.

At the heart of the matter was the fact that services designed to provide farmers with access to information and inputs to produce better and more were ineffective. University students like himself, had access to new technologies and practices but they typically went in and out of the villages without time to effectively transfer knowledge or understand their reality. So many well-meaning organizations and government agencies, and some not so well-meaning, managing external “interventions” with farmers were wasting resources and causing little positive change. Vinsen challenged himself to reverse this. After graduation, he turned down offers from the university and district agriculture departments and moved to a village considered the poorest and driest in the province. The village, whose name literally meant “dry land” had been slated for forced relocation of its population since “nothing could be produced” and the food insecurity was considered by the government as irreversible. After many painstaking years working with the leaders and the families, gaining their trust and membership in their community, he learned that it was not technology that the farmers needed most—assumed by most experts—what they lacked was self-confidence and the belief that they were capable of changing their reality and making their own living. 

Based on this insight, Vinsen founded the Geo Meno Foundation in 1997 with some university colleagues. In 2005 the organization changed its name to Yayasan Mitra Tani Maniri meaning Self-reliant Farmers Partnership to reflect the heart of its work and as a testament to the transformation of YMTM under Vinsen’s leadership. For the achievements of more than 13,000 farming families, the village where it began has changed its name: it is no longer a “dry place” but instead, lush and green with forest coverage, year-long food production, and farmers themselves turned their lives and livelihoods around.