Indonesia needs cheap rural cars

Two models pose by Toyota Astra Motor's Agya car during the launching event on Sept 9. A  new Agya hatchback costs 76.5 million rupiah (S$8,400), thanks to government tax breaks. By contrast, a Toyota Hilux pick-up starts from 158 million rupiah
Two models pose by Toyota Astra Motor's Agya car during the launching event on Sept 9. A  new Agya hatchback costs 76.5 million rupiah (S$8,400), thanks to government tax breaks. By contrast, a Toyota Hilux pick-up starts from 158 million rupiah (S$17,400), putting it way beyond the budget of most rural farmers, who end up buying creaky second-hand models. -- PHOTO: ASTRA INTERNATIONAL

Major auto makers like Toyota, Honda and Datsun recently launched a range of cheap new city cars, which are likely to flood the Indonesian market and make traffic even worse in cities such as Surabaya and Jakarta.

But what Indonesia needs is not cheaper city cars, it’s cheaper rural vehicles - preferably compact, four-wheel drive pick-ups - for use in farms.

Toyota’s zippy new Agya hatchback, for example, costs 76.5 million rupiah (S$8,400), thanks to government tax breaks. By contrast, a Toyota Hilux pick-up starts from 158 million rupiah (S$17,400), putting it way beyond the budget of most rural farmers, who end up buying creaky second-hand models.

Yet in Indonesia, the agricultural sector employs one-third of Indonesia’s 114-million strong workforce and contributes about 15 per cent of gross domestic product.

Rural vehicles would make it easier for farmers to transport crops like chili and cocoa from remote planations on mountain slopes to distribution centres.

They also come in handy to help with farm work, say to assist farmers to turn unhusked rice to husked rice, to generate power for milling activities, and other lifting and towing activities.

The world's fourth most populous nation has about 250 million people who subsist on rice as a key staple. Although it now has to rely on imports to meet demand, Indonesia produced 69 million tons of unhusked rice in 2012 from its more than 6 million ha of paddy fields, mostly in Java island.

Indonesian farmers also plant oil palms, mostly in Sumatra and Kalimantan, and cocoa in Sulawesi, among its key export commodities.

Helping these farmers and making their job easier would be in the national interest. And it would be strategically sound to start doing so soon amid the harsh reminder that Indonesia has recorded a record current account deficit in recent months as imports rose, while exports stayed stagnant.

A cheap rural vehicle can be designed to be as standard as possible - to keep prices affordable - but yet as useful for farm work as possible.

It can be done the old Land Rover way. Indonesia could replicate what the United Kingdom did back in 1950s when its agricultural sector still played a significant contribution to the economy.

Back then in the UK, a Land Rover equipped with an engine governor and a centre power take-off unit could have various tools fitted or bolted to it to help with farm work. Certain Land Rover models continue to have these features today.

An air compressor for example could be mounted on the vehicle and run to carry out various tasks such as inflating tires. A pulley drive fitted to its main gearbox could be used to drive appliances - to grind beans or rice - mounted on the vehicle.

And a towing hook fitted to the rear chassis frame of the vehicle could pull heavy loads, or any two-wheel trailer full of crops.

During The Straits Times’ recent visit to Central Sulawesi, old jeeps - emitting annoying sounds from rusty bolts that barely kept the vehicles’ body frames together – and about a dozen motorcycles were seen going back and forth carrying cocoa fruits as they passed the dirt and gravel trails in Tamanjeka village, located on a mountain slope covered with cocoa trees.

Some farmers made countless trips on motorcycles to transport their crops from the plantation on higher ground to a distribution centre at the foot of the mountain. But whenever it rains, work stops.

Cheap, compact, tax-free four-wheel drive pick-ups would help solve such logistics challenges like these, and help farmers across Indonesia work in a more productive, efficient manner.

wahyudis@sph.com.sg