The Business of Babies is an on-going series by VICE's Indonesia office looking at all the ways people have turned something so basic—reproduction—into a money-making venture. In the coming days we'll cover the baby modeling industry, elite pre-schools, and the murky Instagram fertility pill industry.
Ester Resimeilana Sihombing often stared at her colleague, a fellow civil servant at the Indonesian Ministry of Internal Affairs. It was 2011, and her colleague had just returned to work after taking maternity leave for a few months. Ester witnessed how busy her colleague was taking care of all the baby’s needs while trying to work at the same time. Throughout the day, she pumped her breast milk—called ASI in Indonesia—into a bottle and to give to her baby when she gets home.
The colleague was physically present at the office, but it was like her head was back home, Ester says. Back then, people were still using Blackberry phones and online delivery services were unheard of. Ester’s colleague had to find different ways to keep her ASI fresh. She needed a fridge. At the time, the only fridge in the building was in the cafeteria. So there were all those bottles of ASI sitting inside the cafeteria fridge of a federal government building.
“But the fridge wasn’t always available,” Ester tells me. “If they were full, she couldn’t put her bottles in.”
Because of this, Ester’s colleague also had to leave work earlier than usual. She arrived at the office at 8 AM, and then by noon she had to go home to take care of her baby. Her colleague’s routine was hectic, but witnessing this became an inspiration for Ester.
At the time, Ester and her boyfriend, Andrew Yosua Parlinggoman Sianipar, were brainstorming for a new business opportunity. Andrew, who had quit his day job to chase his dream as a businessman, was running out of good ideas. But when Ester told him about her friend’s struggle to prepare ASI as a new mom, everything clicked. Andrew wasted no time getting the ASI delivery business up and running.
“Andrew was a bit nuts, he just went for it,” Ester says about her now-husband. Back then, no such service existed, so the competition was minimal. “I think we were the first one.”
Andrew managed to raise funds from selling his television set and his collection of Adidas jackets, and borrowing money from his parents. With the money, they bought a Honda motorbike. Then their breast milk delivery business called Pong ASI was born at the end of 2011.
“Blackberry used to have ‘ping’ feature, it’s a wordplay off that,” Ester says, laughing.
After months of waiting and promoting through Facebook, they landed their first client—a father who asked Pong ASI to pick up and deliver breast milk for his twin children. The man was ecstatic about the one-of-a-kind service Pong ASI provided.
“He even invited us to his children’s birthday,” she says.
Fast forward six years later, Pong ASI has grown exponentially. They no longer run their business from home, but from an office in Central Jakarta with 25 employees who take care of dozens of clients and receive at least 500 invoices per month—a 10-fold increase from their early days. Today, Pong ASI charges around Rp 4,500 to 5,500 ($ 0.32 to 0.39 USD) per kilometer for picking up and delivering breast milk. Nabuella Hamdania, Pong ASI’s spokesperson, tells me that in early 2018, they served about 45 customers, some of whom benefitted from the breast milk that around 395 women routinely donates to the company.
Pong ASI has never ran out of milk supply due to its abundant of donors, and customers keep coming back too, since many families outside of Jakarta desperately need readily available breast milk.
“Not every city has readily available stock of ASI,” Nabiella says. Recently, Pong ASI received an order from Ambon. “We sent 100 packs altogether, the shipping cost was like Rp 1.5 million [$105 USD]."
One of Pong ASI's loyal customers is a mother of three, Indirasari Larasati. Out of all her children, it was the oldest, Adinda, who started drinking formula milk the earliest. She stopped receiving ASI at six months old. And she was the weakest one as a baby. She often suffered from diarrhea, and took a long time to recover. Indira’s middle child, who was fed ASI for much longer, didn’t experience this at all. Indira concluded that a baby’s ASI intake makes a huge difference. That’s why when her youngest child was born, Indira vowed to give him nothing but ASI. Now it doesn’t matter that she goes to work every day because delivery services like Pong ASI are able to make sure her son gets her breast milk on time.
“In a month, I spend up to Rp 400,000 [$28 USD] on ASI delivery, “ Indira says. “But it’s not a problem, we’ve allocated budget for it."
ASI delivery services have been a godsend for new mothers who are returning to work after their maternity leave. Nia Umar, the vice chief of the Indonesian Breastfeeding Association (AIMI), says she’s happy about this development. But she tells me that everyone has to be cautious when it comes to donated breast milk since delivery companies can’t guarantee that a donor’s milk is free of bacteria and virus. The only way to make sure the milk is clean is to test in the lab. But that’s expensive and complicated.
“So it's be best to get ASI from the hospital,” she says. “The problem is ASI bank is still not common here. You may get it from a donor, but you have to be extra careful.”
Receiving breast milk from an unofficial donor, Nia said, should be the last option for ASI supply. If a mother is having difficulty producing milk, the first step is to go to a professional medical personnel who understands ASI—there's no need to panic or even turn to formula milk. “The difficulty of producing ASI is just like any other illnesses, the cause can be spotted after a consultation,” she says.
Elizabeth Yohmi, the task force chief of the Indonesian Pediatrician Association (IDAI), raises similar concerns. Yohmi says parents should receive breast milk from donors with a lot of caution, since breastmilk contains a blood strain that may encourage transmission of virus such as CMV, Hepatitis B and C, and HLTV. “ASI from donors need to be stored in the right way, and even pasteurized," Yohmi told local media. "WHO guidelines state that before given to recipients, ASI need to be cultured first."
For working mothers and those who don’t produce enough breast milk on their own, companies like Pong ASI are the best solution right now. Competitors started to pop up in the last two years, Ester says. Companies like Amura Courier, Gatotkoco, and JNE (already a big name on goods delivery)— are now offering similar services. But Ester says she's not worried. If anything, their existence will push PONG ASI to keep growing. The market for ASI delivery nationwide is still huge. Pong ASI now picks up and delivers only in the Greater Jakarta Area—it hasn’t even touched on other big cities in the country.
“We can be big, if anyone invests in us, we’ll be big for sure,” she said.