Adding value at the source....
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Jeremy Hicks, founder of Bridgewater International Services, had identified virgin coconut oil as a high value product with options to add value at the source and started to search for a way to produce it in the villages.
Jeremy Hicks, born and raised in Lansing, Michigan, USA, didn’t want to live a mundane life. He wanted to be useful, pioneering sustainable business initiatives, and creating new opportunities for others.
Throughout Jeremy’s childhood his parents took him on trips all around the United States instilling in him a strong desire for travel, exploration and adventure.
After university, where he studied music, linguistics and business, Jeremy worked and saved his earnings as a flooring installer and delivering pizza.
In 2008, as a young adult with a yearning to live outside of the United States, he was told about Indonesia being a diverse country with good food and a low cost of living. At the time those were good reasons to go, so he went. Jeremy studied the Indonesian language and in 2009 began teaching English in Yogyakarta. But while he has a deep respect for good teachers and their dedication, this vocation was not for him.
In 2010, along with an acquaintance from the UK, Jeremy founded Bridgewater International Services.
“We didn’t know what we were doing, but we figured we could provide a consultancy service based on the solid network we were building - along with the capability of effectively navigating bureaucracy and culture in Indonesia.”
Bridgewater’s first contract was with the State University of Makassar in Sulawesi, developing a language and culture program for foreigners. “After two years of establishing links, methods and materials, I am humbly proud to say that the program continues independently to this day.”
Later came a contract with ADM Cocoa to manage a five-year Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Program for them integrating cocoa farm development with community development. This has broadened Bridgewater’s network of agricultural development-related companies that are continuing to sustain the services offered by Bridgewater.
The CSR Program brought Jeremy to Majene, West Sulawesi, working with the village farmers focussing on cocoa bean quality and high-value market connections. Building a strong local network led to looking for ways these village farmers could expand and improve with other sustainable and locally grown products like coconut, which are plentiful.
“We decided to transfer our gained experience into a coconut business combining elements of village development, sustainable business, and high value market access.”
Jeremy had identified virgin coconut oil as a high value product with options to add value at the source and started to search for a way to produce it in the villages. While using faithful Google, he came across Dr Dan Etherington’s DME (Direct Micro Expelling) technology. DME integrates perfectly into village life, creating a high-quality product with relatively low investment.
“It was also significant that Dan replied directly when I reached out and he answered my questions very thoroughly.”
Jeremy broke ground in late October 2016 and was operating his DME unit by end of January 2017. This did not come without its challenges like trying to balance fair wages and the price of coconuts while having a positive impact on peoples’ lives. There were also trying times training people to dry the coconut evenly without burning it and perfecting the filtering process. The Indonesian market like their VCO to be crystal clear with no hint of colour. For the first 12 months after a promising distribution contract fell through, Jeremy was left scrambling to find other avenues for sales.
"The greatest challenge of all is marketing, marketing, marketing."
To provide stable employment the DME unit operates 6 days a week, all year round. This meant focussing mainly on bulk sales in the first year while developing their own brand ‘Siola’ which has now gained momentum. Currently 75% of sales is Siola and retail packaging for other brands. The domestic market remains sufficient to absorb current production output.
They are very happy with the quality of their VCO: its excellent shelf life, its total lack of rancidity, and its pleasing subtle aroma. Jeremy is generally happy with the clarity of the oil but it requires work. In smaller bottles the oil looks clear. However, when placed in vessels larger than 500ml there is a slight yellow tinge. This is noticeable because the target market demands VCO to be as clear as drinking water since they equate this with quality. While rare, the complaints received are only about colour, people suspecting that the oil has been heated.
“Overall, customers love our VCO and we consistently hear from people who thought coconut oil tasted disgusting until they tried ours.”
Coconuts are purchased locally from about five ‘go to’ spots. A small amount of nuts come from the local villagers themselves. During Islamic Ramadan the price is typically 25% higher. The rest of the year it’s relatively stable except when the copra price increases - which is always fluctuating and unpredictable. Supply is constant all year round, if you are prepared to pay during the hikes.
Jeremy is now based in Java where he focusses on VCO marketing and distribution while continuing with his Bridgewater consultancy contracts. His Indonesian partners and local village supervisor run things at the village DME unit.
At the village they run two DME presses and employ 10 local villagers, mainly women. Currently they press 50 litres of oil a day. That is 9-10 nuts per litre from the tall coconut variety and 14-19 nuts per litre from the hybrid coconut palms. Factored in is a 5-8% loss due to bad (sprouted) coconuts which are used to make copra – so no waste.
Currently they are working with the surrounding community to create a business making soap from the VCO sediment. The left-over shells and husks, which aren’t consumed heating the coconut dryer, are used to make charcoal that is sold.
The experience gained in setting up and operating the DME unit means that Bridgewater International Services now offers consultancy to others wanting to set up a DME unit with a focus on establishing sustainable businesses. “Bridgewater also manages a community development program (Global Hope Network) in our DME village where our team helps the community solve their poverty-related issues such as clean water availability, children’s education, and small business development.”
Growth has been steady and an additional press was added to the DME unit. However because organic growth is preferred to outside investment, it’s slow. Furthermore, margins are too low to attract investment. There would need to be a whole resource dedicated solely to running a ‘DME Hub’ - servicing a minimum of 10 other DME units - to manage a scale that would realise its full economic potential.
Jeremy’s vision is that the DME units he is involved with provide life-changing income generation, operating consistently and sustainably, extracting as much value out of DME as possible toward a broader impact at the village level.
“Big picture-wise, I will always happily assist any person or company who wants to use DME towards life change. I want to see Indonesian DME VCO with a strong brand in the international market – but I await the scaling, and each unit must be strong.”
Since starting, Jeremy has witnessed significant benefit to his employees. They have built new houses and purchased new motorcycles. There is no other form of regular employment with fair income in the immediate area and it’s normal for families to be separated for years at a time as men move away seeking employment. DME keeps families together. “However we are only scratching the surface. There are 200 families in the village and we want to see more impact through spin-off businesses such as coconut oil soap.”
Currently DME brings a few benefits to the wider community as well such as selling coconuts to the units for immediate cash, and buying the coconut meal cake from the DME unit cheaply to supplement their stock feed, or purchasing coconut shells to make charcoal. The coconut water is given away and is used as a natural herbicide. The villagers also have access to the drilled water supply and restroom at the DME unit. “But it’s not all rosy – a couple of employees gamble away their earnings, prompting us to integrate character building into our community program. Overall, the impact is mostly positive, and while we want to see broader benefit, it is very satisfying seeing husbands returning to the village to work and now able to be with their families again; to see two employees fall in love at work and marry; and recently a real sense of unity as our village distributed face masks, sanitiser, food and other supplies to the victims of a major earthquake in Majene that struck on 15 January 2021. “We like to think we are not just providing income generation opportunities but fostering a community of gratitude and generosity motivated to help others in need .”
2021 and thirteen years on, Jeremy is 38, married to a local Sulawesi woman and they have a daughter aged 6. Indonesia is now home. In his spare time Jeremy enjoys song-writing, recording and drinking beer.
When we asked Jeremy what he loved about Indonesia he said: “There’s a lot to love and a lot not to love depending on my mood on a given day. When I was younger, I would have said I loved anything new and different. Now I love Indonesia because it is my home and I continue to be able to engage in work that is varied and fulfilling. If I’m honest, I also enjoy not being fined for driving recklessly or going over the speed limit.”