The rise of a new generation of ‘green collar workers’ in South-East Asia
When she was younger, 34-year-old Tran Thi Khanh Trang never imagined that she would go into farming, but her passion for the environment led her to a sustainable development project in her native Vietnam that then spurred her to go into the sector. Further south, in Indonesia, 28-year-old Audria Evelinn is working to improve the local food system in her country, and, since retiring, 57-year-old Tosca Santoso has been involved in a reforestation and coffee-growing project.
Across Asia, many young, educated and master’s-level professionals from a variety of sectors are going back to their roots to create projects that can help the environment and support local communities.
It is a trend that James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania in Australia, says is not unique to this region, but is common in countries where there is a growing, and newly emerging, middle class, which is helping young people get a better education.
Given the statistics, it could be said that there is nothing unusual about Trang taking this career path. The young woman’s parents had very limited resources and never thought Trang would go any further than high school but, thanks to her grades, she managed to get into the Hanoi University of Science and Technology, where she majored in technical English and developed a passion for sustainable development through community-based projects.
South-East Asia is evolving fast. According to IFAD, after two decades of rapid economic growth, the Vietnamese are going from being a subsistence economy to an emerging lower-middle-income economy, and the country’s economic fabric has also shifted from reliance on agriculture to industry and services.
The country’s rural population (about 7 in 10 people), however, still has little in terms of savings or state support, and relies almost entirely on natural resource collection and agriculture for a living. Improved living standards in rural areas have also brought greater income inequality and environmental degradation, according to IFAD.
Community and environmental entrepreneurs
After doing a master’s degree related to agriculture at Colorado State University in the United States, Tran Thi Khanh Trang launched Fargreen, a project she began working on in 2013, seeking to help local communities in Vietnam make the most of their resources.
The entrepreneur tells us that her main work with Fargreen is to “make the most of rice straw, something that Vietnamese farmers usually burn after the harvest,” but which they now use to grow gourmet mushrooms. The mushrooms left over and the by-products of this process are used as a biofertilizer, to enrich the soil, to produce more rice and other crops.
Fargreen’s high-quality products have made their way onto the menus of high-end hotels and restaurants such as the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hanoi, one of the country’s most prestigious hotels, which hosted the summit, in 2019, between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and the then US president, Donald Trump.
Andreas Ismar’s story is very different to Trang’s. Born and raised in Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, unlike many Indonesians, he grew up in an affluent household and was able to choose his own studies; he went to the city of Groningen in the Netherlands to study economics and business.
Indonesia is the largest economy in South-East Asia and, according to IFAD, three out of five Indonesians live in rural areas where agriculture is their main occupation. The agricultural sector contributed 8.5 per cent to Indonesia’s GDP in 2016 and, although this percentage has been declining over the past five decades, it is still the main source of income for around a third of the population and, more specifically, for 64 per cent of those living in poverty.
Poverty in Indonesia is still concentrated in rural areas, where in 2014, 13.8 per cent of the population was classified as poor, as compared to 8.2 per cent of the urban population, according to IFAD’s data.
While studying in the Netherlands, Andreas was taken by surprise on meeting Europeans from farming families who were not by any means poor, unlike in his home country, which made him wonder why farm workers in fertile Indonesia have so little in the way of education and resources.
On returning home in 2005, Andreas worked as a financial journalist for reputable news outlets and started a small catfish farming business with his cousin, an entrepreneurial activity that made him realise, he says, “the high costs, difficult market access and questionable seed quality”.
Frustrated by the low prices, which left a gross margin of only 1,000 Indonesian rupiah per kilo of catfish (the equivalent of about €0.06 or US$0.07), Andreas decided to load up his van and offer the catfish directly to market stall holders. Before he even got out of his vehicle, he was greeted by a couple of thugs armed with machetes. After this experience, Andreas understood that the business was controlled by a select few.
In spite of this incident and the conclusions he drew, he went on to expand his fish farm from nine to almost 40 ponds in less than two years. At the end of 2019, the entrepreneur met a farmer who was passionate about reducing costs using organic methods and simple technology. He explains that this all helped him to realise that even though small farmers do not have direct access to the market, “they can still make a profit”.
In 2020 he launched a new project to produce snacks made from sunflower seeds and signed a sales contract with a local company. Andreas believes that if they make it profitable, they can help overcome the stigma attached to farmers, seen as “poor and uneducated”, and attract more people, especially young people, into the sector, as most of them are now over 45 years old. Their project is called Horekultura (which translates as Hoorayculture), and their motto is to ‘grow happiness’.
As the economies of South-East Asia grow, Chin explains that many young people, like Trang and Andreas, feel the need to do something better for the new generations, beyond earning money and feeding a family, because they can afford to do something new and completely different from what their parents did.
Audria Evelinn’s mission also fits in with this thinking. As she explains, her goal is to “improve the local food system in Indonesia by reconciling the relationships between nature, farmers and consumers”. Audria has a master’s degree from Seattle University (USA) in urban sustainability. She also took part in the sustainable agriculture programme at Growing Power, a community farm in Milwaukee, and a master’s programme in gastronomic tourism at Le Cordon Bleu, a renowned culinary and hospitality school in France.
Audria’s work seeks to empower farmers and community farm programmes. “Food is a powerful vote for the change we want to see in the world, and by choosing local, organically grown, direct and seasonal produce as a customer, we are creating demand that supports a sustainable local economy providing a livelihood for farmers,” she says.
Audria has long been drawn to the idea of the regenerative farm as a gateway to environmental conservation. Given that large-scale conventional farming and the non-stop production of food is “damaging our precious resources and the soil for our future food supply, as well as damaging our own habitat and wildlife,” she summarises, she thought she should do something to try to reverse the trend.
In 2018, Audria set up Little Spoon Farm on the Indonesian island of Bali and designed an online platform from which people could directly order fresh local crops. The project also helps local farmers adopt regenerative farming practices and the farm acts as a space for sharing sustainable farming methods and facilitating the connection between local farmers and consumers.
Since the start of their operations, Audria says they have been able to maintain organic farming practices on ten small partner farms and implement a soil restoration programme using microbe-rich farming techniques.
It is not only young people like Audria who are going back to the land and farming. Indonesian Tosca Santoso, who spent his entire working life in journalism, decided to work the land when he retired. In 2008, when Tosca was managing Green Radio in Jakarta, he had a programme with farmers on the populated island of West Java about reforestation, which evolved into a coffee planting project to increase the incomes of those working on the land.
As Tosca tells us, agriculture, especially when combined with forestry, “is very important for both farmers and the environment,” so that is where he focused his efforts and founded the Kopi Sarongge project.
Thanks to the work he has done together with a farmer, a 38-hectare open plot of land has been transformed into secondary forest. Currently, about 100 farmers from the surrounding area are working on Tosca’s forest management project – covering about 120 hectares in total – integrating agricultural production and forest protection. The project is headquartered in the city of Cianjur in West Java, from where Tosca plans to expand the plantation and encourage more farmers to join the initiative.
Beyond the work of entrepreneurs such as these, governments in the region are starting to do their bit to contribute to this forward-looking trend. As the FAO’s Vietnam office explains, Vietnam was implementinga vocational training scheme for rural workers, running until 2020, and, although it has now come to an end, they expect it will be renewed this year and will probably run from 2021 to 2025.
Prosperous Singapore also plans to create more than 55,000 green jobs over the next ten years in the environmental and agricultural sectors, including around 4,000 in 2021.