Fri, 22 Dec 2000

'Jamu' business started pure and simple

JAKARTA (JP): It all started probably with those pretty women who have been going around town with a basket of bottles tied to their back for centuries.

It is said that these women are capable of conversing with trees and plants who whisper back to them numerous secrets wrapped in leaves, stored in roots and lying hidden in barks. Due to their closeness to the lush green bounty around them, these women have always been allowed to occasionally pluck a flower or two, some fruits and creepers to twist them and turn them, to dry, powder and store them away.

Later jamu (medicinal drinks) made from these resins and roots were sold door to door. To this day the first caller of the day often is the jamu lady at many a home where she is immediately surrounded by customers in search of drinks that are said to help them wake up without a headache, cold or general fatigue.

The belief that beauty is nothing but a healthy soul inside a healthy body has come down from indigenous animistic times and is still respected here and practiced to this day in its original form. From village to village and from mother to daughter the powers of traditional medicine have been passed on for eons. As present day entrepreneurs combine ancient knowledge of health and beauty with modern technology, the followers of herbal medicine too have crossed all national boundaries to become a global cult, conveniently having blended in with the new age movement that demands for a return, back to nature.

It is in fact the village woman who generously introduced her knowledge of the wonders of the healing properties of Nature in to the royal kitchen, a class that went on to guard the recipes of health and beauty as if with their very life. For hundreds of years the bounties of nature became a preserve only of the rich as the poor villager was forbidden to live life as was taught to him by his ancestors.

Although the names of Mooryati and Martha Tilaar are repeatedly mentioned as the two reigning queens of cosmetics here, it is Nyonya Meneer who is the natural mother of the modern industry.

Born in Sidoarjo in 1895, she got her name after having craved for nothing except menir, or the fine residue of grain left after the husk is thrashed away from rice, during her pregnancy. Later she used recipes handed down to her from her family to cure her husband of a chronic illness. Astounded at her own success at playing doctor, the simple but caring Nyonya started treating other patients as well.

As her healing hands gained popularity it became impossible for her to see all of her patients. She founded Jamu Jawa Asli Cap Portret Nyonya Meneer in Semarang in 1919, a company selling cures made by herself. The marketing strategy of printing her photo on every body bottle paid off as buyers felt that the healer was actually with them as they drank the life saving brew.

Started by a housewife, the owner today of the large Nyonya Meneer medical firm is businessman Alvin Lie. It was around 1930 that factory-made traditional medicine spread around the country, mainly to combat the flood of expensive, imported medicines here.

Today packaged jamu with brand names such as Meneer and Mustika Ratu are a multimillion rupiah industry. There was a time when the industry grew unchecked like a creeper, without regulations, and tempted many quacks to join in to make a quick buck.

In 1963 the government stepped in to impose restrictions on what could sell as jamu, defining it as "indigenous Indonesian medicine" and inspiring manufacturers to outdo each other in quality and variety. A few years later the government even made policies to encourage entrepreneurs engaged in the non-oil and gas export sectors, boosting businesses here.

Today cosmetics are valued as a thriving, economic commodity, the government having set an annual 20 percent growth rate for cosmetics manufacture. About 65 percent of the country's cosmetic producers remain small and medium enterprises, running their business, often, manually. The remaining 35 percent are larger companies that have invested in modern technology to produce their wares, peddling them worldwide, even making it one of the most enduring survivors of the economic crisis.

Jamu manufacturers from Central Java, the heart of traditional cosmetics country, are also looking to reap rewards from exporting their products.

One of the officials from the Central Java Jamu Manufacturers Association said in January the products were enjoyed by foreign consumers because they were considered safe and chemical free.

"In anticipation, many jamu producers are producing more products for the export market, on average almost 35 percent from total production," Stefanus Handoyo Putro told Bisnis Indonesia.

He added the jamu business survived the prolonged economic crisis, even though it was at times difficult to source materials, and production increased annually.

"On average production of jamu in the last two years increased from 5 percent to 10 percent, with the export market growing with additional consumers." (Mehru Jaffer)