This impact story was written by Nicola Bidwell as part of the 2019 Affordability Report, which was published on October 22. Illustration by Neema Iyer.
Pseudonyms are used for the names of people and most places to protect participants’ identities.
This account originates in research for the Association for Progressive Communications’ “Local Access Networks: Can the unconnected connect themselves?” project. The research summary and methods used for the work are reported at www.apc.org/en/node/35445/. This work was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of IDRC or its Board of Governors.
The village in central Java was preparing for its second biennial festival to celebrate the mangos that hang heavily on thousands of trees lining its roads and in the surrounding plantations. Each of the village’s 300 or so farmers donate a crate of mangos to the festival, held in November during the richest of the four mango seasons. Statues of mangos frame the village’s arched entrance, and labels stuck onto fruit proclaim that it’s this village’s mangos that Indonesia’s presidential palace favours. Mangos are justly the pride, and also the livelihood for many of the village’s 5,900 population whether they grow them or, like Heny and Rinie the two women at the heart of this story, trade them with the help of the internet.
“Social media was our strength,” said the director of BUMdesa, the local Village-Owned Business Entity, as he enthusiastically recalled the first mango festival he coordinated two years ago. Other people said “everyone in the village” promoted the festival using Facebook and WhatsApp or referred to e-marketing BUMdesa’s other agritourism ventures. BUMdesa manages facilities at the village’s park and plantations, where on Sundays visitors can enjoy archery and boat rides, relax in the shade of rose-apple and mango trees and pick-their-own fruit for a small fee. Some inhabitants of the village were taught to use the internet in BUMdesa’s ventures by Puspindes, an NGO based in the small city 40Km away. Young ICT evangelists who volunteer for Puspindes also work for a government programme that supports the province’s information systems and have mentored staff of BUMdesa and the village authority’s office to develop content for the village website. Puspindes volunteers also introduced local entrepreneurs to e-marketing using social media. For instance, a young part-time worker for BUMdesa has several Instagram and Facebook accounts that he uses to market his photography and videography services, from wedding portraits to action shots of visitors at agritourism park.
Accessing the internet is certainly a special benefit of working for BUMdesa because it administers the community’s Wi-Fi network. Nearly 50 households, two of the three local primary schools and a technical school subscribe to the network, which also serves the village authority and BUMdesa offices. Two Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) provide 3G coverage to the village, however their services are costly. Thus, two years ago, the village authority paid a private ISP to erect a tower in the village and install Wi-Fi for internet backhaul. Installation cost Rp15,000,000 (US$1000) and was covered by the Billion Village Fund, a government allocation that aims to ensure village authority offices are online and comply with the mandatory requirements for integrated village information systems. The village’s chief said he was first in the Province’s Chief’s Association to have the idea for Wi-Fi network. Subscribers to the network have contracts with the ISP, however BUMdesa handles the monthly payments and receives a 20% commission, which offsets the cost of its own internet. The password to BUMdesa’s Wi-Fi is restricted to its 18 staff, of whom just three are women. Most of the 15 part-timers are high school students who work for a share of the profits at BUMdesa’s agritourism facilities, organising motorbike parking and selling tickets to the fruit plantation. Some part-timers also log onto the Wi-Fi when they meet, to plan and coordinate agritourism endeavours, at the home of BUMdesa’s Director who is a household subscriber.
“I can save more money by using Wi-Fi at BUMdesa,” Heny says jovially, and it’s not hard to imagine how she arranges her mango enterprise around her job managing household Wi-Fi subscriptions. The office is not busy when we call in and Heny welcomes us. Two young women interns look at a computer together, a YouTube entertainment video paused on the screen of a computer on another desk. Heny, BUMdesa’s only woman full time staff, joined after graduating high school, and her job entails printing and giving invoices to customers and recording payments using Excel. Occasionally Heny speaks to customers to remind them to pay, though only a couple have fallen behind in payments, and a close familiarity amongst inhabitants means issues are easily resolved.
Heny can trade 60 kg of mangoes a day, throughout the main season, and sometimes handles orders over 100 kg. Customers come to collect their mangoes from her home, or she delivers on her motorbike or couriers them to customers as far as Jakarta, 350Km away, who pay her by electronic banking. Farmers deliver mangos in plastic crates to Heny’s home every day and she pays them a fairer price than the brokers in the wholesale mango trade. The farmers, she says, don’t do their own e-marketing because they are unfamiliar with or cannot afford phones.
Each time farmers deliver mangos Heny takes different photos. Piles of mangos, ripened and not yet ripened; mangos in crates, mangos held so the sticky label shows, mangos arranged on brightly coloured plates cut across in half, like an avocado, or into cubes with their skins folded back. Heny posts a new set of photos on her Facebook and WhatsApp status updates, with her phone number and a short message, for instance:
“Whoo Mango Palace ready again! Sure you do not want to try the sensation of eating palace mango. 😍 want?”
“Ready again, palace mango and fennel mango 😁😁😍 Come on, the one yesterday didn’t get the order right away 😁😁🙏”.
In the past week Heny posted mango delivery updates almost every day, each with a different set of photos. Her Facebook timeline alternates between her mango updates and selfies of herself and others in BUMdesa, spiritual texts and interests typical of a yet to be married 20-year old. Heny has 5000 Facebook friends, the maximum permitted number, and says she has bumped into most but she does not know them all. Yesterday she posted new photos and already fifteen people have come to her home to buy mangos.
Rinie also uses Facebook and WhatsApp to e-market mangos but doesn’t use the community Wi-Fi network. She spends Rp50,000 (US$3.51) on 3Gb data every month from one of the two MNOs. Rinie doesn’t post as often as Heny and handles orders of just 7 kg only a few times a week. She trades mangos farmed by her in-laws who only sell in bulk. Some are fragrant, tree-ripened purple mangos, like those she lasted posted Friday, five days ago. Customers from nearby contacted her on Facebook so she drove about 5Km to deliver their mangos and receive payment in cash. She also posted mangoes two days ago and customers from further away contacted her today, so she organised a courier to transport their mangos.
About the same time that she got her first smartphone, nearly ten years ago, Rinie joined Facebook. She now has about 1000 friends, although many live far away as she met them when she was studying in Jakarta at university. Rinie uses her phone to connect her laptop to the internet, which until a year or so ago she used to explore teaching materials online. That was when she was an English teacher, but now she devotes herself to her family, and uses the internet to read the news, watch videos, particularly the popular subtitled Korean movies, and explore foreign recipes, though often she can’t find or afford their ingredients. Sometimes Rinie must top up her mobile data, especially if her three young children have been watching YouTube. She limits their time online, resorting to electronic gadgets only when she can’t calm them down, “I don’t want my kids to be YouTube addicted” she says.
Rinie’s concern for her children’s exposure might reflect a cautious approach towards integrating the internet into home life, although she did not say. However, many married women who could not access the community Wi-Fi network said they felt left out. Access certainly effects inhabitants’ local communication and awareness, along with their presence on social media to respond to queries to their e-marketing. There are access points in the village authority’s office as well as in BUMdesa, and the ten men staff in the authority office mentioned that they knew their friends, who also work there must be close to the Wi-Fi if they are visible on WhatsApp. In contrast, many women said that they only knew to come to the office on the day we spoke because their neighbours had come to their homes them to verbally pass on information about an invitation posted to a WhatsApp group. Many of these women are part of one of a dozen volunteer groups who meet at the office to plan and undertake their voluntary tasks, from family welfare services to cooking for the office’s ten male staff and guests. Some women volunteers obtain the password when they are at the office, however the men in the office said that the network slows when they give out the password, and the women volunteers noted that “people are aware that connection is only there for the staff.” Some of the women advertise handcrafted brooches and hijab pins for sale on Facebook, however they accessed the internet less frequently than the authority’s staff who also said that they used the Wi-Fi for their own businesses as well as their office work. That is, women did not access the Wi-Fi in the authority’s office as freely as Heny does in BUMdesa. Indeed, many women, including Rinie, rarely go to the office so do not access the Wi-Fi at all.
Rinie also did not say whether she would like to fit e-marketing mangos into her everyday life in a different way or be able to trade more mangos. However, some married women described how home subscriptions provide convenience access in their busy lives. Hermiati, a mother of three in her late forties, for instance, keeps her phone connected to the Wi-Fi throughout the day “to keep abreast of information.” She has subscribed to the network since it began, paying Rp200,000 (US$14) per month for unlimited data at 5Mbps – just a few percent of the cost that Rinie pays for mobile data. Hermiati runs a stationary shop adjoining her home, which is one of two small businesses in the village that provides Wi-Fi access. She sells daily vouchers for Rp2000 to a handful of school children who sit on her porch playing games and, when not serving her customers, doing house chores, caring for her youngest child, praying at the mosque or attending Quran recitals, Hermiati uses the internet to reads news and religious teachings to improve herself.
Hermiati said “in general the village is more empowered because of connectivity compared with other villages.” Yet, gendered labour and roles, and other social norms, clearly shape inhabitants’ access to the community Wi-Fi network and the way it fits into their everyday life and paid and unpaid work. Convenient access not only affords frequent interactions in e-marketing services and products, like Heny’s mango trade, but also the ability to gain the familiarity with phones in the first place. I chatted about technology literacy and participation with eight mothers and grandmothers in one of the village volunteer groups who had prepared delightful, extensive lunches during my stay. The women explained that they would like opportunities to generate content about their recipes, cooking skills and crafts and the conversation prompted the young ICT evangelists of Puspindes, the NGO that supports rural ICT adoption, to offer to create specific workshops for women like them. Perhaps this will motivate arranging access to the community Wi-Fi network so it can integrate better into their lives.
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