Indonesia's ancient tonic seeks modern remedy

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Media captionJamu is made mainly from roots such as turmeric, ginger and galangal.

It is a busy morning for Nurmini, a 49-year-old jamu seller, as she prepares mixtures of tonic made mainly from roots such as turmeric, ginger and galangal.

"It is purely natural," she says. "I mashed the ingredients by myself and filtered the extract."

Here, in Ariat - a traditional market in Jakarta, Nurmini has been serving her regular customers for more than 14 years.

Her stall is located in front of a mosque and is normally bustling with jamu enthusiasts.

Customers can ask for different types of jamu to ease a variety of ailments. And the tonic is cheap. One cup of jamu mix costs no more than 40 US cents (25p).

"I learnt the art of making jamu from my grandfather. He was a jamu seller too. I never change the recipe, it is still the same," says the mother-of-two.

Image caption Nurmini has been selling jamu for over 14 years in the Indonesian capital Jakarta

According to historians, jamu has existed in Indonesian culture for more than 1,000 years. And the jamu recipe is usually handed down from one generation to the next.

In this modern age, in order to reach a wider market, jamu is available in many different forms.

These days, big-scale jamu manufacturers sell the tonic in the form of powder sachets and pills.

Growth potential?

Charles Saerang, head of the Indonesian Jamu Entrepreneurs Association, is convinced the industry will grow.

Industry figures show 80% of Indonesians take jamu regularly, he says, and the country's population surpassed 250 million a couple of years ago.

But strangely, Mr Saerang's optimism is not reflected in the sales of legal jamu in Indonesia.

Sales have not gone up for years and are stuck at about $235m (£153m) annually, due to the rising number of illegal drug-laced concoctions, which are easily available on the streets and in traditional markets.

What is jamu?

  • Traditional herbal tonic with origins in Indonesia
  • The tonic is a mixture of herbs, flowers, seeds and fruits
  • Generally prepared by female street vendors
  • These days, jamu is also available as a pill

Illegal jamu, believed to originate mostly from China, has become popular as people demand a quick fix, Mr Saerang says, and accounts for half of all sales.

These concoctions usually contain prescription drugs and other chemicals, to cater for customers wanting rapid pain relief.

Beware of fakes

"Most people want a fast effect, but jamu doesn't work that way. We take it, but it doesn't cure right away. It takes time. Jamu is a part of our drinks, not a medicine."

Mr Saerang estimates the illegal jamu is costing the industry more than $200m a year, and it has been available for more than 30 years.

"The government," he says, "didn't tackle this problem seriously."

In Indonesia, consumers can buy jamu without any prescription from doctors.

But the country's health minister, Nila Moeloek, recently cautioned that illegal jamu, mixed with prescription drugs, is dangerous to people's health.

"If people consume these mixtures without knowing what is inside - just because they think it's jamu - they could be sick in the future," she said.

Image caption A majority of Indonesians consume jamu on a daily basis

And this year, there is a new hope for jamu after the government launched a campaign to bring back the glory of this ancient herbal tonic.

The campaign began by encouraging government offices, hotels and companies to serve jamu as a regular drink.

On every Friday since January, ministers and entrepreneurs have gathered and toured from one government office to another to promote the positive effects of jamu by organising press conferences, encouraging civil servants to exercise, and setting up temporary jamu stalls.

Government intervention

"We will push the food and drug monitoring agency to make sure all jamu products in the market are original and pure, without drugs," said Puan Maharani, Indonesia's human development minister.

"At the same time, we want to teach customers that jamu is not a quick medicine, but a herbal tonic. We hope jamu can be consumed by more and more people daily and attract international attention too."

Image caption Indonesia's government officials launched a campaign this year for citizens to "get fit with jamu"

The jamu industry welcomes the initiative, but Mr Saerang says they need a bigger push so that people use the tonic more often.

He wants to use the tonic to attract tourists, not only to enjoy the health benefits of jamu, but also its part in Indonesia's heritage.

But while industry leaders devise strategies to save Indonesia's herbal tonic, traditional sellers have more simple plans.

"I just want to keep selling jamu until I get old," says Nurmini of the Ariat traditional market.

"I want to work harder so I can save money for my children's future."

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