Pangkalan Kerinci. Hari Fitri Ramdhani, 32, a resident of Pangkalan Kerinci in Pelalawan, a district in the Sumatran province of Riau, never imagined she could get rich from batik, a traditional fabric dyed with natural colors more closely associated with its Javanese artisans.
"I wasn't born with canting in my hands, unlike those [batik makers] in Java...," the mother of two said jokingly. Canting is the pen-like tool used to apply wax on plain cloths which will resist dye and create patterns.
Not many people want to become batik makers in Pelalawan, let alone in Riau. Most of the major batik producers are still based in Java. The island of Sumatra, including the province of Riau, is better known for its weaving.
But this has not stopped the Andalan Cooperative in Pangkalan Kerinci to encourage local women to become batik makers and earn much-needed extra income.
The co-op's story stretches back to the end of 2013, when Riau Andalan Pulp and Paper (RAPP), the Indonesian subsidiary of global pulp and paper industry leader Asia Pacific Resources International — known as April, started to make efforts to empower women in the local community by giving them new skills and helping them to earn money on their own.
Sundari Berlian, the manager at RAPP's community development unit, said 10 women from Pangkalan Kerinci are now working in a production house called Rumah Batik Andalan (RBA). All the women learned batik-making from scratch. But they can now make up to 130 pieces of batik cloth and book about Rp 20 million ($1500) in sales every month.
It has been a rocky road for Fitri and the other batik makers at RBA — established under the legal umbrella of Andalan Cooperative — before they could get acknowledged as genuine batik makers and secure the intellectual property rights for some of their patterns.
These 10 batik makers were the only ones left out of 50 hopefuls in the early stage of the program.
"They used to get burns on their hands from the hot wax when they had just started training," Sundari said. But in three years, each of these women had mastered the art of making batik from start to finish.
Set new standard
Inspired by the natural beauty of the Pelalawan district where the cooperative is located, with its picturesque scenery of dense forests, abundant wildlife and flowing streams from the nearby Kampar River, the batik makers at RBA production house in just three years have already managed to earn patents for a number of original patterns they created on their own and set a new standard for batik production in the province.
One the most popular patterns RBA produces is the Bono batik, inspired by a rare tidal bore seen in the mouth of the Kampar River.
Bono, or "Seven Ghosts" as the locals call it, is a spectacular natural phenomenon that occurs once a year, a large river wave caused by sea tides entering the Kampar River which allows surfers to ride it for hours.
RBA secured the intellectual property right for the Bono pattern in 2015. Other patterns unique to the RBA production house — eucalyptus leaf, acacia leaf, Lakum — a local fruit that looks like grapes— and Timun Suri, a local variety of cucumber, were given patent rights a year later.
Fitri said she can earn up to Rp 2.5 million a month, and sometimes more, from making batik — which greatly helps her family since her husband only works odd jobs as an auto mechanic.
"The money I earn from making batik at RBA, praise be to God, has already helped me buy a house," she said.
Fitri and the other nine batik makers at the RBA were trained by master batik craftsmen from Solo, Yogyakarta and Pekalongan — homes to the finest batik producers in the country.
Some of the RBA batik makers have also visited all three cities to see the batik-making process for themselves from start to finish in some of the biggest batik production houses.
"In Java, each stage in the batik-making process is done by a different artisan, as the batik houses are racing against time to produce massive numbers of batik. But here, all RBA batik makers have to master all the stages in batik making, including designing, coloring and how to maneuver the canting," Sundari said.
Since each batik artisan in the RBA has already mastered the A-Z of batik making, they've also started to pass on their knowledge to the local community, giving workshops in schools and other local establishments.
The only thing RBA still has to buy from Java are the batik-making tools and the raw materials, like the canting, the dyes and wajan, the container that holds the melted wax.
Nikmah, 39, an immigrant from Java whose husband earns pennies from a palm oil plantation in Pelalawan, said her family's fortune had greatly improved after she joined the production house.
She said her family, with four children, used to earn barely enough to pay for their daily needs.
"But thank God, this production house has helped me earn enough income to buy our own house," Nikmah, who has been with RBA for two years, said gleefully.
RAPP's community development program initially provided the funds to establish the cooperation, build a workshop for the production house and a shop to sell the RAB's handmade batik in Pangkalan Kerinci.
Overtime, as members of the production house honed their skills and amped up their knowledge in product design and quality control, they became self-sufficient enough to be able to pay for their own production, and eventually to make and sell enough batik to make profits.
RBA now offers customized batik as well as readymade ones for retail customers.
"We have other buyers now, including [RAPP's] guests who buy our batik as souvenirs to bring home, local administrators, staff of nearby companies and locals who buy batik from our shop in Pangkalan Kerinci," Fitri said.
Aside from producing handmade batik cloths, RBA can also make clothes, mostly uniforms for local companies and government offices, although the sewing is outsourced to a third-party.
A piece of fully handmade batik cloth from the RBA, which can take up to two weeks to make, sells for Rp 500,000 per piece.
A semi-handmade batik cloth requires less effort and can be had for Rp 350,000 a piece.
Although RAPP's corporate communication unit and Tanoto Foundation — a foundation with affiliations to RAPP — are still RBA's top buyers, RBA batik is well on its way to national popularity, with RAPP and April eagerly promoting RBA batik in a number of national and international exhibitions.
The latest exhibition RAPP took part in was the Pelalawan Expo 2016, where it opened a booth showcasing a fusion of culture, nature and technology the company is known for. The expo was the largest annual event in the district, held to celebrate the cultural, ecological and economic vibrancy of Pelalawan.
Other expos the RBA has participated in include the Asean Economic Community Expo 2016 in Pekanbaru, Riau, organized by the Indonesian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, known as Kadin.
"We hope we can promote the batik we produce whenever we take part in these expos," Fitri said.
In the future, Sundari said, RAPP will expand its empowerment of local women by attracting new members to the production house and tapping into the next related industry, making readymade clothes from their own batik cloths.
"The more local residents can earn extra income from our community development programs, the better," she added.