Wisnu Wardana

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow Since 2001
This description of Wisnu Wardana's work was prepared when Wisnu Wardana was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001 .


Wisnu Wardhana is improving cleanup efforts in Indonesian cities by introducing a collection system that works well, generates income from side projects such as composting, and restores a sense of public accountability for waste management.

The New Idea

To clean up Indonesia's cities, Wisnu has formed a collective of workers to gather, transport, and dispose of trash. He has also introduced related efforts that earn money for the group by separating the organic matter in waste and, through a process Wisnu has perfected, turning it into rich compost in forty days. The compost is then delivered to farmers and other clients. Not only is Wisnu improving the appearance and hygienic conditions of cities, he is also professionalizing the waste management industry by readjusting the hours of work, introducing performance measures and incentives bonuses, and providing health care. Through these measures, he is changing the way the public sees people in these jobs, and changing the way people in these jobs see themselves. The garbage workers in his collective now feel pride by association with a system that works efficiently, performs a very visible service to the community, and pays well. Having started small, Wisnu now has municipal leaders, development workers, and schools coming to him to learn the technical and managerial elements of his work so that they can introduce similar programs in their communities.

The Problem

Government agencies cannot manage waste for all people living in Indonesia's densely-populated cities. In Bandung, nearly five thousand cubic meters of garbage are produced daily from households alone; in Jakarta, it's four times as much. The city of Bandung collects only about half the garbage its residents produce. In addition, there aren't enough landfills for the waste, and the remaining half is either burned or thrown into rivers. Few efforts have been made to sort or compost trash from households, despite the fact that most garbage is organic matter. People toss trash into roadside bins, but because they aren't often emptied, the trash flows out onto streets, causing an unsightly, unhygienic mess of plastics and biodegradable, organic materials. Part of the problem relates to the public's view of the collectors. The collectors do not enjoy the respect of the public, and the filth of the garbage they gather colors the public's perception of their civic worth. Instead of thanks, they often get snide remarks from passers-by. And this carries over into their performance on the job. Without the appropriate management structure and incentives, trash collectors don't really have a reason to do their job well. So some slack off and surrender to what seems an impossible task, and one that has no backing or support from the people.

The Strategy

Through trial and error, Wisnu began to perfect his technique of composting. In 1996, he learned of the work of Yayasan "Dian Desa," a large citizen organization working on rural development. Impressed by his seriousness, and by samples of his compost, the organization made a small grant in the form of materials to build simple sheds on the half-hectare of land Wisnu had rented for his work. With his small group of garbage collector friends, he began to pour a lot of time into the center. Soon, his efforts attracted visitors: representatives of nonprofits, the mayor of Sleman district, and engineers. While the engineers wouldn't touch anything, they filmed Wisnu and his team and began to think of ways to build a much larger site. Feeling responsible for the welfare of the other garbage collectors, who numbered twenty by 1998, Wisnu decided to begin developing the group. He learned to write proposals, secured a grant from the mayor, and renewed his rental contract on this site. The site now has an office, sheds for trash separation and pyramids of compost, and fishponds where fish are fed on kitchen scraps and maggots. Wisnu has cut back on the time required to produce high-quality compost from fifty-five days to forty days. He no longer uses chemical additives. Productivity has escalated from 700 kilograms to 3 tons per month, then to the present 15 tons per month.Wisnu realised that marketing the compost would be key to success and sustainability, especially as production increased. He has developed an impressive array of marketing strategies to reach farmers, civil society organizations, plant nurseries, and the Forestry Department. He has joined forces with an alliance of central Java farmers to improve their composting methods. Wisnu has also made a visit to a large farmers' organization in Lampung, South Sumatra, with the same purpose. As well as continued attention to techniques and marketing, Wisnu has concentrated on the organizational aspects of the project, especially those that promote job respectability. He has readjusted work hours, introduced strict performance standards, built a system of incentive bonuses, and secured health care and other benefits for the group. What's more, the members of the collective now feel that they have a professional identity they can feel proud of. To spread his idea and bring in new staff, Wisnu works with women's groups, the unemployed, and students who plan to replicate his ideas. In training sessions he shares all aspects of his idea: personal responsibility in rubbish management, composting techniques, environmental benefits, and the creation of respectable jobs. In early 2000, the Sleman district accepted Wisnu's system as an official part of its yearly budget and brought in Wisnu to train the new staff. Now Wisnu has trained eighteen new groups, and these groups train other groups. This has resulted in effective garbage collection and composting throughout the whole district, and an increase in coverage from about fifteen hundred people in 1996-7 to more than forty thousand people in 2000, with approximately one hundred eighty people fully employed in this work. This growth has attracted attention from the media as well.

The Person

Wisnu grew up in a middle-class community just outside the city of Yogyakarta. After studying accounting in college, he took a job as a garbage collector for his neighborhood, an unlikely choice for someone of his background. The job paid little and came with a stigma. Soon, in talking with other garbage collectors at the midway dumping site, Wisnu learned of the problems they faced and saw the severity of the collection problem. To improve waste management and the conditions under which the collectors worked, he decided to form a group with three of the workers. He had also noticed smoke coming out of the garbage heaps, and his curiosity about this phenomenon led him to investigate. As it turned out, he was observing the natural composing of the organic mass in the trash. One of his neighbors, a lecturer in forestry at Gajah Mada University, was happy to lend Wisnu books on composting. His vision of garbage as "black gold" began to take shape. Wisnu very much enjoys his work.