Eko Putro Sandjojo is probably the quietest minister in President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo's administration. He seldom has time for publicity, instead dedicating himself to his work. As regional development and transmigration minister, the massive responsibility of improving infrastructure and people's welfare in Indonesia's disadvantaged rural areas and villages rests squarely on his shoulders. A huge portion of the annual state budget is allocated to his ministry for that purpose and he is now starting to gain recognition for his hard work, both at home and abroad.
The former businessman started his political career when he joined the National Awakening Party (PKB). President Jokowi tapped him to replace Marwan Jafar following a cabinet reshuffle in July 2016.
Born on May 21, 1965, Eko graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Kentucky in Lexington in 1991 and subsequently obtained an MBA from the Indonesian Management Development Institute (IPMI).
He was appointed as general manager of PT Indonesia Farming in which his father had a 5 percent stake. Eko then became president director of PT Sierad Produce Tbk, later joining PT Humpuss, before returning for a second stint at PT Sierad Produce, until his resignation in 2009. Dissatisfied with his business career, he joined the PKB as party treasurer.
In October last year, Eko called on millennials to help develop rural areas and promote village products, including tourism villages managed by regional government-owned enterprises.
"The creative ideas of the millennial generation and their presence on social media can provide huge impetus for the development of villages. Young people, especially students, should look at the potential offered by the regions instead of focusing on the capital Jakarta. Villages have their own problems, so there are both challenges and opportunities, because of less competition," Eko said in a press release at the time.
His ministry is working hard to improve the image of disadvantaged regions as poor and only inhabited by low-income earners. To achieve this, he launched four priority programs that involve inter-village cooperation schemes partnering with businessmen, construction of water retention basins, establishment of village-owned business units and the building of village sports facilities.
"The huge funding allocated to villages has transformed them and made them more advanced and self-reliant. The good thing is that the government warrants the funds to be managed by the villages themselves, so the money circulates in the villages. Human resources, raw materials and consumables used in the development projects should also originate from rural people," Eko said.
During a coordination meeting of ministers last month, Eko said his village programs have attracted praise as models for developing countries. Over the past four years, the village funds have been used to build about a million clean-water installations, 158,000 kilometers of rural roads and thousands of early learning centers and maternity clinics.
"Our achievement has received appreciation by many countries, institutions and the World Bank. They use Indonesia's rural development programs as a model for developing countries," Eko said.
For this year and next year, the village funds will be used to empower people and village economies, as mandated by President Jokowi. "As suggested by the president, the priority is to empower local people and village economies. There are now many examples, such as village-owned business units paying more in taxes than the initial funding they received. All we need is to clone this model and implement it in other villages," he said.
However, the priority placed on empowering people and regional businesses does not mean slowing infrastructure development projects. The village funds are also still used to build infrastructure in some of regions, such as in the southern part of Java and in eastern Indonesia.
The Jokowi administration has allocated village funds every year since coming to power four years ago. The amount varies every year – Rp 20 trillion ($1.37 billion) in 2015, Rp 47 trillion in 2016, Rp 60 trillion last year and the same amount this year. The government has allocated Rp 73 trillion for next year.