To the village community in the heart of Rote Ndao District in East Nusa Tenggara Province, Metri Nainatu (known locally as Mama Metri) is a source of inspiration and a symbol of resilience. Her transformative journey from fisher to entrepreneur has blazed a trail for other coastal communities to follow towards a more adaptive, resilient future. With support from the Arafura and Timor Seas Ecosystem Action Phase II (ATSEA-2) Project and the local government, her story offers a beacon of hope – and it begins with soap.

Mama Metri is a skilled fisher and seaweed farmer. In recent times, when her catch became less reliable, she went looking for a way to supplement her income and, using a combination of local knowledge and natural ingredients, found a solution in the production of soap. Her unique innovation was to add leaves from the Siam weed or ‘Jack in the bush’ (Chromolaena odorata) called balakacida, which have long been used by women in the community as a herbal pain remedy. Next, together with 15 friends, she established Ita Esa (a name that means ‘we are one’) to begin producing her all-natural soap in larger batches. She didn’t realise it at the time, but the group would go on to have a profound impact on the lives – and livelihoods – of many women fishers in her community.

A Clean Break: Developing Alternative Livelihoods Around Sustainable Soap

Members of the Ita Esa group making a batch of their Minano soap

Mama Metri has played a crucial role in guiding the Ita Esa group to success. By channelling her knowledge into new innovations, she has been a driving force for economic sustainability in her community. The group’s profitability has even contributed to community development, by supporting the construction of a local church and funding a local food programme designed to combat childhood stunting. 

Mama Metri and her team are committed to preserving coastal ecosystems around the village, especially the mangroves. As she explains, “they protect the marine environment and lessen the impact of things like tsunamis.” To keep the mangroves healthy, her group are very selective in their ingredients. “We only use fruits that have already fallen,” she says. “If it has sprouted roots, we don’t take it.” This approach is helping to ensure the long-term health of mangroves in her community, while also enabling natural resources to form the basis of sustainable livelihoods.

A New Wave of Innovation: Local Women Leading the Way

Mama Metri stacks up freshly made bars of soap

Mama Metri’s impact extends beyond the confines of the Ita Esa Group. As a respected figure in her community, she has encouraged other women to embrace alternative livelihoods; to many, her story is a beacon of empowerment, illuminating the narrow lanes of Oeseli Village and encouraging others to follow a similar path.

Her journey highlights the transformative potential of women-led initiatives. Through her influence within the group and across the community, she embodies the crucial role women have to play in shaping adaptive, resilient coastal communities. 

She sees her Minano soap as a transformative local product; a source of pride and inspiration for everyone in the community: “thanks to the help we have received from ATSEA-2, Rote Ndao, and especially Oeseli village, is known all over Indonesia and even overseas. Knowing that foreigners are already using Minano soap, we feel proud that we can put Rote Ndao on the map.”

By Stella Yovita Arya Puteri and Chris Alexander