“Palm oil is my first love, don’t ever leave it behind.”
That’s the message that Sunarto keeps telling his two sons, Kristiyono and Dwiyono. In 1991 Sunarto moved from Central Java to Siak Regency in Riau to start a new life as an oil pam smallholder as part of the government’s PIR-Trans migration programme.
Today, aged 58, he’s built a successful life for himself and his family, expanding his business and even setting up a community swimming pool to diversify his income.
But it was not an easy journey. When Sunarto first moved to Riau his eldest child, Kristiyono, had to stay behind in Java with his grandparents to continue his education. His younger child, Dwiyono, had not yet started school so moved with his parents.
“The first time I moved here was the most difficult time of my entire journey, I think,” Sunarto recalled.
“The problem was that the palm oil trees here had just been planted, so we could not manage our plantation. We had to wait for the trees to grow before we could harvest them.”
He survived in those early days by trying to find alternative sources of income, such as growing vegetables in the front yard.
“But even growing our own vegetables was not easy as the heat was just unbearable for most of the migrants here. Eventually, we had to be economical: one pack of instant noodles was shared between the family for breakfast and dinner. It was like that for three years,” he said.
But it was those difficult conditions, as well as training from Asian Agri on alternative income programmes, that nurtured Sunarto’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“I have half a hectare of yard and I decided to plant chilies. I started by buying books about growing chilies to complete the knowledge I’ve got from Asian Agri about starting an alternative business,” he said.
“In fact, it went really well and I could even sell them. That was the first side business I did in the middle of this palm oil plantation,” he said.
Added value through creativity
Over time, Sunarto’s life in Riau began to improve, thanks to his well-managed palm oil plantation. Kristoyono and Dwiyono have also reunited. In 2003, Kris decided to move to Riau to live with his family.
“Although palm oil makes our lives more prosperous, I still always feel challenged to do new things, trying new ideas and innovate,” said Narto.
When it came time to replant the oil palm plantation in 2018, Sunarto began to look around for ideas for a business to help provide income while the new trees grew.
“Initially, this land was our yard. After I was done with growing chilies, my two children planted various vegetables here. I then chose to build a hut to chat and enjoy an afternoon coffee with members of the smallholder group,” Sunarto said.
“Suddenly I thought of turning this yard into a swimming pool complex. At first, no one believed me. Nevertheless, I just continued to work in silence. Eventually the first swimming pool was built in 2018 and surprised everyone,” he continued.
Sunarto underwent his first replanting process a couple of months after he built the Tirta Buana swimming complex in 2018.
“Many people are worried about replanting because they can’t imagine having to lose their main income from palm oil plantations for around 30 to 48 months. That is why it is important for palm oil smallholders to always be creative and have the courage to start an alternative business, especially during a difficult period such as replanting,” Sunarto explained.
Tirta Buana has four swimming pools, a plantation area, and a food stall. Narto’s creativity and courage to start a business and face failures and challenges has always been a strength for Kristiyono and Dwiyono.
They share the responsibilities of managing Tirta Buana, which now has seven employees and is always swamped with visitors every weekend.
“Dad always has ideas to start something new. Somehow, he just always knows what to do. When he faces a failure, he would try again until he succeeds. Tirta Buana is one of the proofs of his creativity and hard work,” said 36-year-old Dwiyono.
“Our visitors even come all the way from Pekanbaru. Even though it’s always very busy every weekend, we are grateful that Tirta Buana can be widely known around here. Dad always reminds us that this is the fruit of persistence and honesty in doing business,” said the older brother, Kristiyono.
For Sunarto, nothing compares to the joy of seeing his sons working hand in hand and continuing what he started.
“My only message for them is to never leave palm oil because it is palm oil that has made us who we are today. This alternative business is only to provide added value for the family’s finances while palm oil remains our priority,” Sunarto said.