Erika Sianturi always wanted to work in agriculture, but that’s not to say that her first assignment on one of Asian Agri’s oil palm plantations didn’t come as a surprise.
“It was two hours by car from the nearest city!” Erika recalls.
“But my approach is always to be brave in facing every challenge and to never be hesitant to try new things as long as it’ll result in my positive development. I always make the decision to just do it,” she says.
Erika, who now works as a Budgetary Control Officer at Asian Agri, first joined the company in 2012 after graduating from the University of North Sumatra with a forestry degree.
As part of the initial stage of joining the largest oil palm company in Indonesia, Erika first had to undergo basic training for six months at the Asian Agri Learning Institute (AALI) in Riau.
After qualifying as a planter, the real challenge began when Erika was assigned to work as a Nursery Assistant at Asian Agri’s oil palm plantation in Gunung Melayu Village in Labuhan Batu Regency in North Sumatra - a very remote location.
“I tried to make the plantation feel like home and eventually I got used to it,” Erika says, adding that she learned a lot from the job in terms of field knowledge as well as social skills.
Adapting to life on a plantation takes time, but Erika remained resolute. Her hard work paid off when she was awarded the Asian Agri Innovation Award in 2013, which honours field assistants who have demonstrated innovation within the oil palm industry.
Erika, who was working as a Replanting Assistant at that time, had managed to increase legume crop growth in a plantation area which had just undergone land clearing for replanting.
Legumes help to provide nitrogen into the soil and also protect it from heavy rains and strong winds, therefore making it more conducive to growing new oil palms.
They can also be a source of alternative income to smallholders during the oil palm replanting period, she said.
For Erika, the award is proof that Asian Agri shows recognition as well as provides leadership opportunities to women, especially when she was promoted to Afdeling (department) Assistant two years later.
In this role, Erika was stationed in Negeri Lama Village, also in Labuhan Batu Regency. She was the only female Afdeling Assistant in the entire plantation.
“As an Afdeling Assistant, I had even more responsibility towards the workers and local communities. Not only did I have to ensure that the oil palm plantation was operating according to the work plan, I had to make sure the workers were capable of performing their jobs well,” she explains.
“There was also the challenge of managing a lot of male workers who were older than me. I had to assimilate into their culture and become a part of their communities, as that was the best way to gain their trust and in turn, their willingness to follow my instructions,” Erika added.
As an Afdeling Assistant, Erika had to supervise the oil palm plantation from dawn till dusk, with her day beginning at 5.30am and ending at 6pm.
“I didn’t feel overwhelmed at all, especially as I knew that everything I was doing was for the good of the plantation. I also had a lot of backup from my male colleagues who were very helpful,” she says.
It was then that the training she received at AALI came in handy. “Every lesson at AALI was meant to prepare me to overcome difficulties that might hinder productivity in an oil palm plantation,” Erika says.
Erika says her time in the plantation taught her invaluable lessons which have really helped to shape who she has become today.
“It’s helped me to build character. I’m more patient now and try to put others before myself, as the job required me to always be responsible for the well-being of all the workers on the plantation,” she says.
Today, Erika’s current position as an officer in the Estate Department in Asian Agri’s headquarters in Medan means she no longer works outdoors. But she remains open to any opportunities for further development.
“Here in the Medan office, I can see even more clearly that the company is always encouraging female employees to take on leadership roles. There are plenty of female leaders in Asian Agri and this inspires me to work harder each day!” Erika says.
“I don’t think there’s any other palm oil company of this scale which pays as much attention to the well-being of female employees as Asian Agri does.”
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