Small Business Promotion and Marketing Training for Palm Sugar producers

After participating in the Community-based NTFP Enterprise (CBNE) Hackathon in June 2021, we were given the opportunity to join activities to improve self-ability and community capacity. We chose to conduct a marketing training and a training on community level palm sugar granules production. We saw these as the best options to support the capacity of the small producers  in Southeast Sulawesi.
The pandemic limits activities requiring direct physical presence. This is a big challenge for rural communities.

Our rural community, of small palm sugar producers often receive minimal income and many are aging and have never received education. Meanwhile among the young palm sugar producers many are school dropouts who do the work of tapping sugar palms because they cannot get other jobs.
The marketing training held from 12-14 August 2021 was very useful for the young palm sugar producers in their dreams of expanding their market base. There were 29 participants from 4 regions in the marketing session.

The trainers for the marketing training were from ASPPUK, the association supporting women in small business, and a professional blogger.

Currently, the sales of the small palm sugar producers only go to consolidators and traders. There are also some direct sales to traditional markets. This makes it difficult for them to determine a fair selling price because everything depends on the price given by the traders. In fact, sometimes palm sugar farmers and producers have to keep and store their palm sugar for a long time because there are no buyers or because the price has dropped drastically.

The drop in palm sugar prices and the lack of buyers is much influenced by the presence of traders who arbitrarily determine prices if the demand from large consumers is declining. Besides that, traders may take advantage because they  are also aware that palm sugar farmers have no access to marketing channels other than them.

The promotion and marketing training was focused on online sales, because selling on social media is now very easy and can reach many people. We now experience very fast delivery of information without limits on distance and place. You only need an account and a few photos to make  a cheap and efficient storefront.

However, creating and selling on social media, such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, is certainly very different from advertising in print or television. Because the target market and delivery techniques are very different. Content needs to be packaged very well in order to attract potential buyers. Creativity and patience are also very much needed so that the appearance of the account and the products being sold are better.

Every social media account will have good value if it is able to provide information and education on the products that will be marketed to consumers. Building a product image and credibility of the product itself becomes very important for the sustainability of the business in order to increase sales significantly. In addition, the account will also be the main communication medium during the bargaining process or it can also be an important source of information.

Besides selling using social media, there are currently other good alternatives, which is through applications that provide online booths which are more popular among urban communities using a marketplace. A marketplace can act as a third party in online transactions by providing a place to sell, payment facilities, delivery estimates, product selection and product features.

Selling in a marketplace itself has several requirements that need to be met by a small producer The most basic is safe and attractive packaging. This can be a separate promotional media for consumers to make repeat purchases. Important also is  the selection of the right delivery service so that the product can reach the hands of consumers on time. The last is a bank account as a payment medium for online buying and selling transactions.

There is a huge opportunity for palm sugar producers if they can access the online market, they can interact directly with consumers, it can reduce the gap between the prices expected by the producers and the prices desired by consumers. So far that is often the case. Small producers are not satisfied with their sales, but on the other hand, consumers also complain about the high prices they get in the market. Using online marketing channels can certainly be a solution in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic conditions and for the future. We hope that the small palm sugar producers from the Kolaka Regency can become successful in online marketing in the future.

Making more of the sweet stuff

The people of Southeast Sulawesi are very familiar with palm sugar products, because most people who work as cocoa farmers in the area also tap sugar palm (Arenga pinnata sp.) as a side job when the cocoa harvest season is over. It has turned into the primary occupation for some people in several areas in the province such as in Kolaka Regency. This is because the productivity of cocoa plants is declining and is being replaced with other crops that have high productivity and selling prices.

Palm sugar or brown sugar products that are currently in the market are sugar products that use coconut shell molds or molds from special wood materials (lica-lica wood). Some are also packaged using leaves (jungle jatropha leaves or banana leaves) so it still looks fresh. This very simple and traditional packaging is less attractive for some consumers and may cause obstacles for palm sugar producers from a marketing perspective.

The problems faced by palm sugar producers are quite complex, starting with difficult storage; with a product that is not symmetrical, of course, requires a large storage area. Product durability; this is also a serious problem, packaging using fragile and easily damaged materials will shorten the shelf life of a product. Product promotion also becomes difficult if the shape and appearance of the product is not so attractive. Even the marketing of the product itself becomes a little difficult and orders come only from traders.

Based on these considerations, together with ALPEN (women's alliance) Southeast Sulawesi and farmer groups in Kolaka Regency, a training on new innovative palm sugar products was conducted on August 8, 2021. There were 18 palm producer participants from Lana Village, Langgomali Village, and Ponrewaru Village.

Research was conducted comparing  several similar palm sugar products in the market that are already quite innovative. It was finally decided to make palm sugar in the form of granules or “gula aren semut”. “Semut” means “ants” as the sugar granules look like an army of little red ants. We also added an affirmation in the information about our product in that it is indeed a product of pure palm sap.

Palm sugar is quite easy to make, both traditional and modern tools can be used to make it. However, for our purposes, we have only carried out the training with traditional tools and using the traditional method. The method is quite easy, when the nira or palm sap liquid  is ready to be placed in the mold, the small producers then cool it by stirring constantly in a large pan until the sugar liquid thickens and dries slowly. After the sugar begins to harden into coarse grains, then it is ground with a simple tool made of coconut shells. After that, it is then sieved using a specially made sieve. After that, the sugar is then aerated to reduce the water content that is still in the sugar to make it more durable for long-term storage.

This drying process will actually be very important, because it will affect the durability of the sugar. According to one of the “Gula Semut Aren” entrepreneurs from East Kolaka, using an oven can help the sugar last even up to 2 years if stored properly. This is a serious problem for the small producers we assist because they are still using traditional methods to reduce the water content of sugar. So, it is still less effective and efficient. So currently the production of granulated palm sugar in the Kolaka community is still very limited. But apart from this, the prospect of palm sugar is still quite promising.

With this innovation, packaging is certainly easier because the sugar product is almost similar to granulated sugar. We can also use plastic packaging in various shapes and sizes. As for consumers, it is certainly easier, because it is more practical. It's different when the palm sugar is still in the shape of a mold. It's a bit of a hassle and takes a longer time. For example, if you want to use it as a cake sprinkle, you have to grate it first.

The last thing that is also very important for small producers is the selling price, with good packaging and attractive products. Of course, they expect a better price for their products, because the process of making palm sugar is not as easy as cane sugar or even conventional brown sugar. Making palm sugar requires patience, tenacity and discipline.

Currently, the producers are working on their small producer registration with the government (PIRT) and working on the quality of the Gula Semut Aren. Sufriadi, pioneer hackathon participants was entrusted with selling and managing the accounts of the artisan groups, and some farmers have also tried to sell online for example on Facebook.

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