Rural development

"Money finds us!" - Enriching the vegetable harvest in Timor-Leste

How an ILO supported project helped a local community to improve their farming practices, develop their market access, create jobs and support the development of small and medium-sized enterprises.

Feature | Bangkok, Thailand | 28 February 2014
MAUBISSE, Timor-Leste (ILO News) – Nestled in the rolling mountains 1,500 metres above sea level, Maubisse is a perfect haven for vegetable production. This small sub-district in southwest Timor-Leste enjoys a cool climate, high rainfall levels and fertile soil.

As the first beams of sunshine sprinkle the lush land, Maria de Jesus Mendoca and her family start their work in the fields; watering, de-weeding and sowing seeds. For generations growing vegetables has been the way to make a living in this sub-district of about 22,000 people and now it also gives them a stable flow of income. As one local farmer puts it, “We no longer need to go and find money. Money finds us!”

But just two years ago the farmers faced dire prospects when trying to sell their vegetables. “Before, we grew a lot of vegetables that we could not sell when we brought them to the market,” said 47-year-old Maria. “And when people didn’t buy them, we had to bring our vegetables back home.” With four young children to raise Maria found it hard to make ends meet. Other farmers were the same. Despite generations of farming experience, farmers in Maubisse were shackled by limited market access, a lack of agricultural supplies, and old-fashioned practices.

Women planting seeds in Maubisse, Timor-Leste. © ILO
Things began to change in May 2012 when a local horticulture company, called Josephina Farm, partnered up with the farmers. The company brought vegetable seeds to the farmers, taught them new farming techniques and showed them how to grow organic vegetables and make organic compost. When the harvest season came they helped the farmers with harvesting, paid them on-site, and transported the vegetables to sell in supermarkets in the capital city, Dili.

“Now, the situation has improved,” Maria said. “We grow vegetables and Josephina buys directly from our place. We can now provide for our families.” Her husband, Orlando agrees. “We feel happy that we can now guarantee a good life for ourselves and our families.”

Now the Mendoca family manages a four-hectare field and grows a wide variety of vegetables; including green beans, cucumber, zucchini, broccoli, rocket, lettuce, eggplant, radish, carrots, tomatoes, red cabbage, parsley and coriander. Their income has increased and become stable. Before the partnership with Josephina Farm, farmers like them made US$100 a year, but now they can make the same amount in one week.

Guido Ximenes Sequeira, Director of Josephina Farm. © ILO
The Director of Josephina Farm, Guido Ximenes Sequeira says the differences the project has made to the farmers are both practical and concrete. “They have a lot of enthusiasm and are working together,” he said. “You can see improvements in housing and now they are sending their children to school and some are even going to university.”
You can see improvements in housing and now they are sending their children to school and some are even going to university.”
The changes couldn’t have happened without the support of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Fully aware of the hardship the vegetable farmers were experiencing, the ILO built a partnership with the Government-run Institute for Business Support (IADE) and initiated the Business Opportunities and Support Services (BOSS) project. The project, funded by Irish Aid and New Zealand Aid Programme, aims to improve economic development in poor communities, create quality employment for local people and support the development of small and medium-sized enterprises.

It was through the BOSS project that Josephina Farm piloted contract vegetable farming in the mountains. The project covers not only farming techniques but also gives the farmers business training, such as calculating costs accurately to establish suitable prices for their vegetables. This introductory knowledge will feed into a new training course from IADE – “Start Your Business in Agriculture”, that will be launched during 2014.

Good news travels fast in Maubisse. More farmers want to join the contract farming model. Josephina Farm has started working with two new communities in Maubisse and is set to expand into a neighbouring district during 2014. Many more families like the Mendoca’s should benefit. And they would probably share the same, simple, aspiration as Maria, “We stay here and continue to produce our vegetables and now, we can find a good life.”

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