The Story of Mbok Seneng: The transformative power of an innovation

“Mbok Seneng,” is how people in the village greet her. Her name is Seneng, which bears the meaning of “joyful” in English.1

When Mbok Seneng started farming, she planted millet, adlay (Chinese pearl barley), and sesame. She also cultivated rice and cassava, but she would harvest these crops for her family’s consumption. This range of crops was also planted at the same time, local wisdom of refraining from monoculture farming, or tumpang sari, as the Javanese would call this ecologically sustainable system.

The variety of her crops has expanded. At times, she plants soybean, corn, and tobacco. Corn and cassava are the easiest to cultivate, but tobacco requires a lot of care, while shallots take a longer time to grow. Despite the differences, they all demand her full attention, and water.

For years, Mbok Seneng would carry water on her side while hiking the hilly landscape, holding the container with her hands only. She had to carry it for 500 to 1,000 meters from the nearest spring called pego. If the water source is closeby to a land plot, she would make 10 trips. But if it is farther away, she would go back and forth 5 times only to water the crops.


With the mist irrigation, Mbok Seneng stops carrying this container that she previously used to water her crops.

With the mist irrigation, Mbok Seneng stops carrying this container that she previously used to water her crops. Photo: Lorenzo Fellycyano


Mbok Seneng started this physically demanding work back in 1972 until recent years.2 Nowadays, Mbok Seneng can rest assured that her lands are in good hands. Her son, Sarjito, is leading an IDEAKSI3 innovation team to implement smart mist irrigation.4 As a member of the Ngudi Mulya Farmers’ Group, Mbok Seneng’s land plots get watered in the dry season using the water-saving system.


“The new system definitely helps me. There should be a switch to modern farming so that Jito (Mbok Seneng’s son) can work on the land he inherited.”

– Mbok Seneng


She can now escape both the burden of manually carrying water up- and downhill, and save up to 70% of the money spent on the water trucks. While conserving 40% of water using the new system, Mbok Seneng can even grow crops 2–3 times per year, up from once a year previously.

Meanwhile, her two sons work for the Giriasih village government in Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta. All the manual work she has been doing for many years needs to be transformed in this growingly transformed sector. Her sons cannot keep their office work without the help of automation, one of which is offered by Ngudi Mulya’s IDEAKSI innovation.

As Mbok Seneng faces old age, she has seen changes introduced from outside, as well as the community's own initiatives. Clearly, aging does not stop her from staying on the move. But with the more time she can now spare because of the new innovative farming technology, her five grandchildren cherish her days even more. Mbok Seneng lives up to the prayer given in her name.


Mbok Seneng drying rice grains at her home.

Mbok Seneng drying rice grains at her home. Photo: Lorenzo Fellycyano


Written by: Lorenzo Fellycyano


1 Mbok Seneng (Senen) was born in 1955, and has been an independent farmer ever since she graduated from junior high school in 1972. In 1973, one year after farming independently, she got married. Having a husband does not keep her at home as a housewife. She is still an active farmer now, 50 years later.

Being an independent farmer in her context means working on her own land. As customary in various cultures across the Indonesian archipelago, children are expected to help their parents in agriculture work. They will learn farming for several years until they are ready to take responsibility for a land plot.

2 When private water trucks began delivering water for agriculture, the physical burden was lifted off her shoulders. For one agricultural cycle in a given land plot, her crops such as corn would need 4 water tanks. A truck usually carries a tank of 5 meter cubic storage capacity, equivalent to 5,000 liters of water.

One tank of water costs 120,000 Indonesian rupiah (USD 8). To water all 10 plots of land that Mbok Seneng manages, she would need approximately 5 million rupiahs (USD 325), assuming she cultivates only corn which is not the case. Corn requires less water. Usually, only once every 5 days she needs to get water from the tank.

Some crops such as corn, chili pepper, and tobacco are planted in the dry season when water is tiresome to get, or in the case of Gunungkidul farmers like Mbok Seneng, expensive. As commonly known, Gunungkidul’s topography is dominated by karst formations. While on the surface water is scarce, vast underground rivers flow beneath its hilly landscape. Farmers can usually access this resource through community-wide efforts. But environmental impact must also be cautiously considered because overly exploiting the rivers may harm human’s livelihood as well as the whole ecosystem.

A prolonged no-rain days in Gunungkidul might still cause crop failure, just as a planthopper infestation would do. Lately, Mbok Seneng also avoids growing corn, cassava, papayas, and groundnuts. There is a severe Macaque monkey infestation in the area, likely due to degradation in their natural habitat.

3 The IDEAKSI (short for Idea, Innovation, Action, and Inclusion) program is a part of the Community-Led Innovation Partnership (CLIP) run by the YAKKUM Emergency Unit (YEU). The partnership supports the emergence and development of locally-driven solutions to humanitarian problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo (deferred), Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Philippines. As part of the partnership, IDEAKSI seeks to find innovative and inclusive solutions to disaster management for most-at-risk groups, including persons with disabilities and the elderly.

Through the support provided by Elrha, Start Network, the Asia Disaster Reduction and Response Network (ADRRN) Tokyo Innovation Hub, and funding by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office (FCDO), YEU is able to organize IDEAKSI as its CLIP project in Indonesia.

4 The smart mist irrigation is an agricultural innovation developed by Ngudi Mulya Farmers’ Group, one of IDEAKSI innovator teams. It waters the groups’ land plots with up to 60% less water in its water-scarce local context of Gunungkidul, Yogyakarta. The ‘smart’ development of this system makes water scheduling a breeze with automatic spray activation via a mobile app, without having to be physically present at the site.

Ngudi Mulya’s innovation provides easy and affordable water access to 25,000 square meters of land owned by 23 families. During the span of its innovation process, Ngudi Mulya has benefitted at least 88 individuals in its community.