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Working out of poverty in Timor-Leste

Timor-Leste’s long journey to independence eroded large segments of the economy and infrastructure. Despite recent and rapid oil-fuelled growth, poverty has remained acute with half the population living on less than a dollar a day.

GENEVA (ILO News) - Timor-Leste’s long journey to independence eroded large segments of the economy and infrastructure. Despite recent and rapid oil-fuelled growth, poverty has remained acute with half the population living on less than a dollar a day.

Most of the poor are engaged in low-productivity subsistence work in agriculture. This is why ILO experts immediately focussed on developing market systems when the Organization was asked to help. “Such an approach increases returns for those who were currently working hard, but working poor as self-employed rural producers,” said Roberto Pes, ILO Head of Mission in Timor-Leste.

Fighting a war was easy. To give food to the people, to give work to the people, to provide homes for people, to give clean water to people, to make a good life for people, that is the difficult part.”

Taur Matan Ruak, President of Timor-Leste
From 2011 to 2015, the ILO’s Business Opportunities and Support Services (BOSS) project helped local communities to improve farming practices, develop market access, create jobs and develop small and medium-sized enterprises. Jointly funded by Irish Aid and the New Zealand Aid Programme, it boosted pro-poor economic development and quality employment for women and men, while contributing indirectly to peace consolidation and conflict prevention.

BOSS is embedded within Timor-Leste’s Institute of Business Support (IADE), an arm of the State Secretary for the Support and Promotion of the Private Sector. The project worked to strengthen the capacity of IADE to deliver effective business development services to Timor-Leste’s emergent private sector.

With the technical assistance of BOSS, IADE now offers the Start and Improve Your Business (SIYB) programme to potential and existing entrepreneurs. More than 5,000 entrepreneurs were trained so far.

In addition to training, IADE now offers, counselling, business linkages between buyers and sellers, business information, marketing support and market research. It organises trade fairs and, in 2015, IADE facilitated the first international construction expo in Timor-Leste’s capital Dili. It was attended by exhibitors from Australia, Portugal, Indonesia and China.

BOSS also works directly with private sector partners in horticulture, the meat sector and tourism as the following three examples show.

Enriching the vegetable harvest

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!”

Maubisse, Timor-Leste, is a perfect place for vegetable production. The ILO’s Business Opportunities and Support Services (BOSS) project helped local communities to improve farming practices.
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 de Jesus Mendoca. “And when people didn’t buy them, we had to bring our vegetables back home.” With four young children to raise de Mendoca found it hard to make ends meet. Other farmers were in the same boat. Despite generations of farming experience, farmers in Maubisse were shackled by limited market access, a lack of agricultural supplies, and old-fashioned practices.

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,” de Mendoca said. “We grow vegetables and Josephina buys directly from our place. We can now provide for our families.” Her husband, Orlando de Mendoca 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 much more.

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.”

Starting a new business at 60

Age is no barrier to starting an innovative new business. At the age of 60, Jaime Lemos C. Moris founded and opened a kampong chicken business in the Lautem Regency, Timor-Leste.

He was inspired by village women who travel far from their homes to sell their chicken at the market. “When they told me that every household in the village breeds chickens, it gave me an idea how to help them sell the chickens”, explains the father of eight who started his business in 2014.

I employ youth that have left school in an effort to open up more jobs to them.”

When looking for ways to start his business and get capital, Jaime Lemos came across an announcement regarding the 2014 Innovative Business Plan Competition conducted by IADE. He immediately registered as a participant.

Although he did not win the competition, his business idea was selected as one of the top 10 which entitled him to comprehensive business assistance, including advice, training, business promotion and funding assistance. The latter was used as the initial capital to open the business in his home, and to buy the equipment needed, including a freezer.

The entrepreneur now employs four workers. “I employ youth that have left school in an effort to open up more jobs to them. I have ordered a chicken cleaning machine to accelerate the production process, so that I can produce more and employ even more workers.”

He now hopes to expand his business to produce chicken feed. “Chicken feed is expensive and sometimes difficult to find. It would be more practical and profitable if the community can simply buy their chicken feed and sell their chicken at the same place,” he concluded.

Making Timor-Leste a new tourist hub

Atauro is a small island close to Dili, the capital of Timor-Leste. It is located in the coral triangle known for its rich and abundant marine life. The pristine natural environment is its biggest draw. With majestic mountains and a long coastline, such as those found in Atauro, Timor-Leste is one of the upcoming tourist destinations in Southeast Asia. With a population of 8,000 people, the island can be easily reached from Dili by ferry, water taxi, or charter plane.

Atauro is home for Avelino Pereira Fernandes, a 30-year-old entrepreneur who chairs the Tourism Group Association (TGA). The association works to promote tourism in Atauro, improve coordination and develop partnerships among businesses.

Helping to set up a new tourist destination: Atauro’s pristine natural environment is its biggest draw.
“I have been the chair of this association for two years. We hope to bring different businesses together so that we can support each other and contribute to the development of the tourism industry in Atauro. We want to involve local communities directly so that they can benefit from tourism,” said Avelino Pereira.

The association was established in 2005. However, due to a lack of coordination and commitment, it did not function very well. With support from ILO-BOSS, the association was revitalized in 2013, with Avelino Pereira appointed as its chair.

To date, 20 tourism businesses, ranging from handicrafts, to restaurants, homestays and many others, have registered as members. By working together, TGA has identified potential tourism attractions in Atauro that can be further developed, such as snorkelling, camping and trekking.

In addition, TGA has provided training to its members on hospitality, cooking and business management. Promotional material such as brochures and a website were developed to market Atauro as an attractive tourist destination.

By Gita Lingga and Hans von Rohland