A bite-size problem
Eddy Suparman (pictured, left) agreed – it was a tricky issue so he’s not inclined to make radical changes anytime soon.
However the 62-year old founder of Super Jaya, Malang’s biggest krupuk manufacturer will soon hand over to his son Erik (right). The scion studied mechanical engineering at Brawijaya University and has a few ideas of his own.
“It’s an ethical problem,” said the old man who started the company in 1976. “If we install more machinery there’ll be fewer jobs for the locals. They are our neighbors. They’ll suffer and so will the kampong.
“We bought three machines for Rp 45 million (US$ 3,400) each eight years ago; that removed 24 jobs. We didn’t sack them, they replaced others who left or retired.”
Seeing the way the company makes krupuk is to jump back in time – not pre-industrial revolution, but gear-meshingly close.
Krupuk are Indonesia’s triumph over the West’s potato crisps. The delicious light crackers are roadside food stall favorites, occasionally found in upmarket eateries claiming to serve authentic village fare.
They’re ready on stained benches among the coffee grounds in old 20-liter fuel drums with a window cut in one side and the brand name stencilled on the front. Soon these will be collectors’ items - airtight plastic containers are becoming popular for hygiene fusspots.
Street-food customers help themselves and pay about Rp 100 (less than one US cent) a piece. The previous consumer’s fingernail droppings are extra. This ritual is so ingrained it needs a Neil Diamond number – say, Crunchy Krupuk Suite?
The traditional eatery culture is now being replaced by labelled bags at five times the cost. Apart from being cleaner the packaging adds to the rubbish mountain.
Most krupuk are round, the size of a saucer. Others are oblong. They are made from tapioca flour – which is said to be a good source of dietary fiber - salt and a few other flavors, including onion and prawn.
As a bonus the buyer also gets a tobacco taste; most men processing, packaging and selling can’t function without a fag.
Manufacturing isn’t complex, but it’s labor intensive. The 100 workers spend much of their time doing jobs that machines would love to do.
Super Jaya turns out 750 kilos of krupuk every day – and these are short days because it’s the rainy season and the product is sun dried.
“We’ve tried using ovens but it hasn’t been a success,” said Erik. “That’s a pity because we could then work around the clock and not be slaves to the sun.
“However the taste has to be right.” Indeed; this snack market may be vast, but that doesn’t mean it’s not discerning.
Once a bad word spreads – and Australian wildfires don’t move faster than Indonesian defamatory food appraisals – traders should consider transmigration.
Flour from West Java is mixed into dough with warm water, squeezed through a press to make spaghetti-like strings, pummelled then processed again till the texture feels right.
Another machine stamps out little swirls onto bamboo-frame racks lined with shadecloth. After being steamed for 20 minutes in a sealed room they are spread outside on a concrete floored yard.
At tables nearby women do the same job using cookie cutters. In the background the apparatus that will eventually replace them bang away relentlessly, never tiring.
The workers start at 6 to catch the dawn and leave for home at 12.30 when the dark clouds roll over the mountains and tumble down to the East Java city.
The working environment is smoke, steam and, hot oil – but the outlook is grand – an ocean of terracotta roofs with the sacred Mount Kawi in the background.
These guys have no meteorological training but their rain-spotting skills could be used by radio stations. There should be competitions at the 17 August Proclamation Day fun fairs for the fastest dash for cover without dropping a single snack.
When the baby pressings, about the size of a Rp 500 coin, are ready they’re dunked in boiling palm oil for a few seconds. In that brief moment they puff up like an affronted politician and turn into an adult krupuk.
Laden into big plastic bags inside bamboo baskets astride bicycles – though the progressives use motorbikes - they head to markets. When the Dutch strolled the streets the scene would have been much the same.
Though for not much longer. “If you come back in five years there’ll be more mechanisation,” said Eric, though not in earshot of his father who was prowling the factory checking every detail.
“Dad starts work at 5 am – he always wants to be here ahead of the workers. He’s here when they leave. He started the business from nothing and knows every process; nothing escapes his eye.
“We used to export to Malaysia but krupuk needs to be kept in an air-tight jar or bag, otherwise they go soggy after a few days.
“We don’t use our brand name on the product which is still sold in bulk. Many changes could be made.”
This looks like an industry to excite the foreign entrepreneurs President Joko Widodo is trying to woo. They’d install new equipment, a computerised production line and lifting by robots.
Erik says business is doing well; the nearby grand family villa is proof: “I’m optimistic – demand is growing and we can only just keep up.”
Then workers like Ibu Sulik who has been with the company for 31 years and has family on staff, would have fewer repetitive strain injuries from punching out patterns. But unless they can be retrained to punch computer keyboards and trace motherboard malfunctions they’ll also be jobless.
Then the government will have its modernising investors – and a rising unemployment problem.
First published in The Jakarta Post 26 February 2016