In Indonesia, getting accurate data is like 'finding a Pokemon'

A farmer cutting rice in a paddy field in Blang Bintang, Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on April 2, 2019.
A farmer cutting rice in a paddy field in Blang Bintang, Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on April 2, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - Indonesia's government is set to export rice for the first time in more than a decade - not because the country has turned in a bumper harvest but because it's been importing the grain based on faulty data collection, resulting in an oversupply of stocks.

The statistics agency has now overhauled its rice output survey to improve the data. It's also making its surveyors climb mountains and trek down valleys, sometimes in remote islands, to verify satellite images of more than 200,000 paddy fields.

Mr Suhariyanto, the head of Indonesia's Central Statistics Bureau, said his agents found it tough at first, with some saying it's "like finding a Pokemon," referring to the hit mobile game where users catch virtual monsters on a digital map.

"Some people were left crying as their efforts to verify images fell through," said the statistics chief, who goes by one name. "But it is important we come up with the right result."

The flood of imports depressed local prices, widened the current-account deficit and led to opposition accusations that President Joko Widodo was mismanaging food policy.

Badan Pusat Statistik, as the statistics bureau is known, will start releasing rice crop data based on a revised method as soon as May that it says will be more accurate than a previous survey by the Agriculture Ministry.

The bureau discontinued rice output data in 2016, suspecting that an inaccurate calculation method had been occurring for about two decades.

Imports of milled rice by the state-owned food company Bulog and private firms rose more than six-fold to nearly 2.3 million tons in the 2017-2018 trade year, US Department of Agriculture data show.

FIELD VISITS

"With the new method, we can forecast output for the next three months," Mr Suhariyanto said in an interview in Jakarta. Surveyors, he added, would have to visit the paddy fields on the last week of each month for monitoring and sampling purposes.

A staple food to most of its 260 million people, rice contributes 3.8 per cent to the consumer price index basket, making it one of the most-watched items along with chili, meat, garlic and sugar.

Food prices rose 3.41 per cent on annual basis last year, the third-biggest increase in the CPI, underpinning annual inflation of 3.13 per cent.

"It is crucial for the government to manage stable food prices for people's purchasing power. Accurate data will also lead to a better trade policy and help improve farmers' welfare,'' said Ms Dian Ayu Yustina, a Jakarta-based analyst for PT Bank Danamon Indonesia.

Indonesia is trying to reduce imports to narrow its current account deficit, a key vulnerability for the economy and one of the reasons its currency came under pressure during an emerging-market rout last year. The deficit swelled to a four-year high of 2.98 per cent of gross domestic product in 2018.

The state-controlled food importer Bulog wants to export its rice surplus to prevent an overloading at its warehouses, where capacity utilisation has reached 60 per cent. Talks with importing countries in Africa, as well as Papua New Guinea and East Timor, were underway but deals haven't been reached yet, the company's President Director Budi Waseso said.