Against the stunning backdrop of Mt Agung, in a humble low-rise building in the East Bali village of Desa Ban, Mara Moran enthuses about a new preschool aimed at caring for local kids while freeing up time for their working mothers.
“The school has contributed to dramatic improvements in the health of these kids,” says Ms Moran, a twenty-something college student here on a study abroad programme from Northeastern University, just minutes before being inundated by a noisy rush of jubilant pre-schoolers.
“By providing nutritious snacks, lunches and basic healthcare, kids are more alert and able to learn. This builds strong communities.”
The school is an offshoot of the famed East Bali Cashew company, a philanthropic venture, first set up in the village of Desa Ban in the far north of Bali, that now employs some 350 local villagers, mostly women, who use eco-friendly practices to shell, roast, bake and package a range of natural cashew products from raw shelled nuts to granola bites. Its story is well known.
The brainchild of American investor Aaron Fisher, EBC is lifting local wages while plowing proceeds back into the community by providing training and services like schools. It’s made a splash in foreign media from the BBC to Forbes; even the US government honoured Aaron and his project with the State Department Corporate Excellence Award.
Flush from an injection of cash from a group of CSR investors, East Bali Cashew is getting bigger. Earlier this year, the company opened an Eco Resort – a collection of nine tipis – the sort of tent used by some indigenous peoples of North America. While the tents clash with the tropical backdrop they’re a nostalgic reminder of Aaron’s camp days. They also hint at the hopes of the latest East Bali Cashew project.
Just recently completed, the eco-camp promises a full programme of educational sessions focused on farming and farm communities, cooking classes, team building exercises and plenty of outdoor activities to the nearby waterfalls and mountain peaks. Guests can enjoy delicious foods made of fresh ingredients cooked up by staff drawn from the local village, evening campfires in the spectacular group tent and late night stargazing.
Aaron and company are marketing to schools and universities interested in engaging their students in educational opportunities in the great outdoors.
Their slogan, ‘we create trailblazing service-learning adventures,’ seeks to also capture the corporate group looking for an offsite team-building experience or provide an intimate facility for your next family reunion.
EBC’s new direction stems from some hard nosed business planning.
In 2013, Singapore-based executives of the US private equity firm, KKR, donated their time and expertise as part of its own CSR project to help Aaron develop an enticing business plan and better shape the concept. The business plan helped win US$900,000 in new capital. Just a year later, East Bali Cashew received another US$1.5 million from investors inspired by the project’s promise.
Since Aaron and KKR joined forces, they have brought modernization and technical know-how that has increased both the quantity and quality of harvest. Now the price a local farmer fetches for a kilo of cashews has nearly doubled.
As for the eco camp, its intention is to serve as a funding mechanism for additional support for the traditionally poor and remote villages throughout the high-mountain Balinese District of Tianyar. The camp will channel funds into efforts that will expand the range of crops nearby villages are able to grow in the arid soil of the mountain’s north flanks. Already they have moved past cashews, which naturally already grew in the area, to cacao and rosella, a hibiscus flower dried and used as a tea for its immune support and other healing properties, including colds and coughs. Each of these crops represents greater economic opportunity for the previously financially downtrodden communities. In addition, KKR’s vision is for there to be enough funding one day to provide additional educational opportunities to women of the village to empower them to have a greater role in the financial stability and prosperity of their families.
Already the East Bali Cashew factory has seen results. Nyoman Sudirarta, arguably a modern Head Chief of Tianyar, remembers a time before Aaron first arrived. He tells of how countless men of surrounding villages turned to gangs or other less noble means of scraping together enough money to keep their families afloat. Begging, gambling, cock fighting and alcoholism were hallmarks of the people of Tianyar. Today, there are smiles all around, a school full of laughing children and a landscape that is yielding increasingly more productive harvests.
But visiting the camp or the village is not for the faint of heart. Plunked at the wrong end of a bone crushing three-hour drive through villages and jungle, it is far from the hubbub of the tourist meccas of Seminyak and Ubud. But once there, a visitor may be struck by a kind of simplicity that life has to offer in a place like this. Spectacular vistas include the nearby Mt. Agung peak and the Sea of Bali far off in the distance. Nights bring cool mountain breezes and always the air is fresh. Beautifully constructed showers and restroom facilities give visitors a flavour of camp days but are adequate for those who may have been dubious about this out of the way location. And, knowing what the project is about makes it all just feel good for the soul.
Aaron hopes that visitors will see the opportunity that East Bali Immersion eco-camp offers. Not only is it a place to bond over a weekend of sing-alongs around the campfire or learn about Bali’s agrarian communities, but it is also a chance to contribute to something good; to have your Bali tourism experience mean something to those whose beautiful lands you visit.