Empowering Young Artisans and Entrepreneurs to Preserve Indonesia’s Cultural Heritage


Growing up in the cultural heart of Yogyakarta, Dheni Nugroho found himself mesmerized by the majesty of Borobudur, the world's largest ancient Buddhist temple complex. The intricate Buddhist reliefs, the volcanic rock structures, and the sheer mystery of how this marvel was constructed over 12 centuries ago fascinated him endlessly.

"The rocks, the stone, were carried from the river, through the forest," Dheni recalls. "It's very interesting—many people don't see the connection between the temple and the environment."

This profound connection inspired Dheni to create a unique wallet design that would later win acclaim in a UNESCO competition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention in 2022. His handsewn wallet, crafted by artisans with disabilities, features three contrasting leather panels depicting the silhouette of Borobudur, the surrounding forest, and the skyline. A QR code embedded in the packaging offers information about the temple and the wallet’s eco-conscious construction.

Dheni is among over 1,000 young creative entrepreneurs nurtured by UNESCO Jakarta’s Kita Muda Kreatif (Creative Youth at Indonesian Heritage Sites Program) in collaboration with the Citi Foundation. The initiative, launched in 2017, supports young talents through workshops, mentorship, and networking events, ensuring that local communities benefit from heritage tourism.

“Tourists from around the world flock to heritage sites like Borobudur temple, but nearby communities don’t always enjoy the socio-economic benefits generated by the massive flow of visitors,” says UNESCO’s Indonesia representative Maki Katsuno-Hayashikawa. Supporting young artisans and local business owners helps ensure those benefits are distributed more equitably, she adds.

One notable beneficiary is Rizky Puput Isnaini, a visual artist from Semarang, who battles muscular dystrophy. Despite the challenges of her condition, which causes hand tremors, fatigue, and spinal pain, Rizky’s vivid watercolors have become a powerful medium for her expression. Kita Muda Kreatif's support has expanded her platform and client base.

“I used to be concerned with representing images as realistically as possible,” Rizky shares, referencing her self-portrait "Woman with History," which features flowers growing through cuts on a woman's face. “But I can see that when I put more feeling into my drawings, I can put more of my soul into them.”

In March 2023, Rizky joined a UNESCO panel to discuss the use of AI in augmenting visual art. She also teamed up with fashion designer Risa Maharani for a design challenge that culminated in a UNESCO-hosted fashion show in Semarang on World Disability Day.

The collaborative spirit of Kita Muda Kreatif has also greatly influenced Jemi Nikolaus, an eco-fashion designer from Semarang. Jemi's zero-waste studio produces hats and bags that portray Indonesia's diverse cultural landscape. His participation in the same UNESCO competition as Dheni brought him recognition and success.

Through the program, Jemi attended product design coaching, sustainability workshops, and mentoring sessions, which transformed his business model. “The collective mutual cooperation, sincere support, and solidarity were stimulating,” he says. His studio saw increased sales and a growing customer base as a result.

Kita Muda Kreatif's impact is profound. Since joining the program, 94 young entrepreneurs have increased their income, 140 have developed new products or services, and 61 have hired new staff to meet growing business demands. Additionally, 187 participants received help with legal business certifications, and over 20 youth established business partnerships with private sector companies.

As Dheni Nugroho and his peers continue to innovate and thrive, they embody the spirit of creativity, resilience, and community that Kita Muda Kreatif strives to nurture. Through their work, they not only preserve Indonesia's rich cultural heritage but also ensure its benefits reach the communities closest to it.

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