The Al-Ittifaq Islamic boarding school has become a model of how a religious institution can achieve self-sufficiency in the food sector through farming. Not only cultivating food for its students, but Al-Ittifaq has even been able to distribute its agricultural products to traditional markets and supermarkets.

By Aminuddin

Bandung, WEST JAVA. It would be normal to see in Islamic boarding schools, known in Indonesa as pesantren, where students are taught religious education from dusk till dawn but one school, the Al-Ittifaq pesantren in the West Java district of Bandung has more to offer. Its students are also taught about resilience through agriculture.

It is mid-June 2020. In a room at the pesantren that is located in Ciburial village in the sub-district of Rancabali, four students were busy selecting vegetables on a u-shaped table in the middle of the room. On the table were piles of vegetables, some packaged, some still in large baskets.

Each student adorned a long, black apron that covered their front part of the body up to below their knee, with rubber gloves, face mask, and their kupiah, the black headgear favored by Indonesian men, covering their hair.

At the head of the table, facing the door, one of the students was sorting green beans from a large 60cm x 40cm basket. At the other end of the table, other students were busy sorting, weighing, and packaging aubergines.

The packaging room is where some students of the pesantren spend, doing their daily chores. They usually take turns to sort and package vegetables the entire day, from after the morning prayer until late in the evening.

The head of the pesantren’s cooperative, Agus Setia Irawan said that cultivation of vegetables and fruits as well as farming is part of the curriculum. Reciting the holy verses is only conducted after each of the day’s five prayers.

“In short, agriculture is part of the curriculum of this traditional pesantren. So the recital of verses is only conducted after prayers while the rest of the time is spent on cultivation, packaging and farming activities,” Irawan  said on June 18, 2020.

A number of students at the Al Ittifaq Islamic boarding school are busy packaging vegetables in at the packaging room of the school in Rancabali, Bandung district on June 18, 2020. Credit: Aminuddin

Students at Al-Ittifaq are divided into three groups with the first working in the plantation to plant, maintain, and harvest its products. The second group working on post-harvest processing, including sorting out products, packaging, and managing the supply chain. While the third group is in charge of the livestock.

Al-Ittifaq is led by Kiai Haji Fuad Affandi, the grandson of the founder of the pesantren that has been in operation in the highland of Rancabali since 1934.

“In the early days following its establishment, the Al-Ittifaq Islamic boarding school was only focused on religious education,” said Fuad who is more popularly addressed as Mang Haji.

Upon his return from studying at a another boarding school in Lasem, Central Java, in 1970, Fuad was given the mandate to run Al-Ittifaq by his father, Abah Haji Rifai.

During the early days of his leadership, he changed the curriculum of the pesantren based on a simple aspiration – to make Al-Ittifaq to become more resilient and self-sufficient. At the time, traditional pesantren such as Al-Ittifaq faced the heavy burden of caring for all of its students who did not have to pay to stay and study. Fuad looked into agriculture as a mean to fulfill the daily needs of the pesantren and its inhabitants.

“The number of students was rising and as a pesantren, especially traditional pesantren like ours, we do not charge for anything. Parents send their children to the pesantren and they become our responsibility,” Fuad  said.

Al-Ittifaq now has about 11 hectares of agricultural land, most of them around the pesantren itself. The institution is now a model of pesantren that is self-sufficient in food and farming, and can now meet the needs of its some 550 students.

“We also obtained a grant from (state forestry company) Perhutani in the form of 30 hectares of land under a Rights of Exploitation (HGU) status which have been planted with coffee,” Mang Haji said.

With the surplus of production, Al-Ittifaq has been able to distribute vegetables to traditional markets and supermarkets in Bandung and Jakarta. It currently sells 63 types of vegetables and fruits.

The pesantren now supply the market with some 3.2 tons of vegetables per day, with 60 percent of them absorbed by traditional markets and the rest shared between supermarkets, restaurants and hotels.

The proceed from the sales is used as agricultural capital, to provide food for the students, and contribute to events such as mass weddings, mass circumcisions, and religious celebrations such as the birthday of the Prophet.

Market expansion through network

It took decades for Al-Ittifaq to become self-sufficient and a small player in efforts to support food security in Indonesia. Al-Ittifaq has been able to access a growing market and the high level of demand is turning the pesantren into a scalable vegetable supplier that relies on a network of Islamic boarding schools.

Irawan said that not all vegetables sold to the market were planted by Al-Ittifaq. The pesantren is now also taking in supplies from a number of farmers groups mentored by Al-Ittifaq.

There are nine farmers groups gathering a total of 270 farmers now under Al-Ittifaq’s mentorship program. The farmers are all alumni of the pesantren from Bandung, West Bandung and Cianjur districts. These farmers groups routinely deliver their produce to Al-Ittifaq twice a week.

“Because there are (religious and emotional) ties between the Kyai and his students, we still have religious activities too, every Monday and Thursday evenings here. Besides bringing their agricultural produce here, they also hold recitals of holy verses every week,” Irawan said.

Toat (40), on of Al-Ittifaq’s mentees, said that the Al-Ittifaq cooperative has really helped him improve his distribution. Before joining the cooperative, he could only sell his produce to a middleman who offered him a lower price. Nowadays, Toat sells his produce through Al-Ittifaq and gets a much more decent  price.

Toat cultivates a variety of vegetables in his land plot of almost 200 square meters and supplies six types of produce – salads, bay leaves, banana leaves, baby carrots, pohpohan leaves and beets.

“The selling price is much higher. I package them myself, and gets Rp 9,500 for 1 kg of salads. If I sell it to the traditional market through the middleman, I get Rp 5,000 but now I can sell at a higher price,” Toat said.

On a wider market scale, Al-Ittifaq has, since 2019, collaborated with 16 other Islamic boarding schools to maximize the potentials of agriculture, and working towards making Indonesia the world’s sharia economic axis by 2024.

“In 2019, we tried knowledge transfer, in 2020 we built greenhouses in the 16 pesantrens. Al-Ittifaq does not have the budget to cover that and each pesantren would need some Rp 350 million. We talked to the Sharia Economic Finance Department of the Bank Indonesia and they gave us their support,” Irawan said.

One of the 16 pesantrens, the Bahrul Ulum located in Jatinagara, Ciamis district, has reaped the benefit from its cooperation with Al-Ittifaq as it helped them to optimize the potential of the 3-heectare land they owned. Parts of the land are now planted with honey pumpkin and various low land vegetables.

“This cooperation with Al-Ittifaq, has really helped us. Now we can maximize the potentials of the land we own,” the Head of Bahrul Ulum, Heri Heriyanto (45) said.

They were planning to have a storage house for their agricultural product by 2022 and the following years they plan to build distribution centre for agricultural products in Majalengka. In 2024, they are expecting to start exports.

Resilience a la A-Ittifaq

Three steps away from the cooperative at Al-Ittifaq, were two fish ponds of 30 meters by 40 meters each. The fishes there make the daily catch to feed students of the school.

Some 50 meters from the cooperative were a couple of greenhouses. The air inside the greenhouses was cool when Ekuatorial visited one of them.

Muhammad Ruslan (28), a student whose job is to care for vegetable plantations, showed the way through village houses and there were no fences or boundaries between these houses and the buildings of the pesantren.

Inside the greenhouse, there were rows of vegetables such as Japanese spinach and bok choys. In the middle stood six blue tanks containing a mixture of water and liquid fertilizer. In another corner, a rectangular machine that controls the automatic watering of the plants. A WiFi router could be seen hung above machine machine.

“The irrigation and fertilizing systems are automatic, they can be controlled remotely with an application on a mobile phone,” Ruslan said.

One of the greenhouses owned by the Al-Ittifaq pesantren in Alam Endah village, Ranabali, Bandung (18/6/2020). Credit: Aminuddin

Irawan said that the mentors who trained the students came from a non-profit organization, PUM Netherland Senior Expert. The pesantren is also assisted by agriculture expert from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).

For Irawan, food security could be achieved if there were continuity between one factor to the other. This is why Al-Ittifaq resorted in the permaculture principles, where the planting of a number of crops is designed to realize this continuity and thus the food stock could be maintained throughout the year.

Food security practitioner Basuki Suhardiman from the Odesa Indonesia Foundation, a social organisation that focuses on humanity and justice in education, economy and social sectors, said that the agricultural system initiated by Al Ittifaq could be used as a model on how challenges in food security can be addressed through religious institutions. He added that Fuad has been capable of applying Islamic values into its agriculture concept.

“What Al-Ittifaq  is doing is exemplary. I think Al-Ittifaq is the only pesantren like this. It has limited land but they just used it and the food waste is then turned into fertilizer for the soil. This is being done by Al-Ittifaq,” Suhardiman said.

“This is a value of Islam, that nothing is wasted because that would be a friend of the devil. Kyai Fuad always said this,” he added.

The head of the Bandung district agriculture office, Tisna Umbara, also said that Al-Ittifaq has become a model pesantren for others in developing modern agriculture.

“So, Al-Ittifaq is already a model pesantren. It is unique because there are activities other than the recital of holy verses, extraordinary agricultural activities,” Umbara said.

Muhammad Ruslan (28), one of Al Ittifaq’s students is checking the seeding of various vegetable seeds in one of the greenhouses run by Al Ittifaq, in Rancabali, Bandung (6/18/2020). Credit: Aminuddin

Relatively unaffected by Covid-19

While all sectors appeared to have been negatively affected by the ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic, agricultural activities at Al-Ittifaq seemed to have been spared.

“The activities on the field has not changed, social distancing is a certainly being practiced on the field. Our post-harvest process here is being assessed by (Dutch food company) Albert Heijn,” Irawan said.

The pandemic did briefly severe the supply chain for Al-Ittifaq, as it was unable to send produces to restaurants and hotels, but it was quickly offset by its online sales.

“If we are always thankful, there is a silver lining. One example is that Al-Ittifaq now has online narket through,” he added.

Hudan Mustakim (30) a farmer from Bandung district, said that COVID-19 did not impact the agriculture sector much. He even said that he benefited from the pandemic because he could sell his commodity at slightly higher price.

“We planted tomatoes and, thank God, the price of tomato is currently quite good as we can sell the kilogram for Rp6,500 to the collector. Supply can also be met from other regions so, the distribution of vegetables to markets here in the Bandung region is quite safe,” Mustakim said. Ekuatorial.


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