Railaco, Timor-Leste – Up a winding, rock-strewn road through stunning mountain scenery, an hour from the Timorese capital Dili, coffee farmer Bartolomeo de Deus shakes a basket of his arabica beans. The coffee cherries have just been picked and are ready for resale to Timor Global, one of three main coffee exporters in Timor Leste, also known as East Timor.
“I have 200 hectares under cultivation”, he says, making him one of the bigger farmers in a country where coffee flourishes and could be a lucrative export. There is potential here”, says Bill Tan, the Singaporean co-director of Timor Global. However he cautions that, to maximise output, “farmers need to be shown how to nourish the crops and prune, for example”.
On average, a Timorese coffee farm produces 150-200 kilogrammes per hectare, while in neighbouring Papua New Guinea, yields are closer to 800 kg, sometimes even 1 tonne per hectare. Papuan coffee there sells close to the top of global premiums, and is coveted by connoisseurs in Australia and beyond.
Coffee – and tourism – could be major growth sectors for Timor-Leste, as it looks forward to its second decade of independence. While the country is physically-beautiful, with white sand beaches and untouched diving spots, it is expensive to get to. And once you’re there, poor roads mean internal travel can be time-consuming and uncomfortable.
Timor-Leste’s economy has grown at around 10% per annum since 2007 but this is fuelled, for want of a better word, by oil and gas. Bound by law to bank most of the US$7 billion revenue earned to date in a Norway-style fund, the idea is that the country will have money to draw on once the wells run dry.
Despite the recent growth, Timor-Leste remains one of the poorest countries in the world. The country has received an estimated US$8billion in foreign aid since Indonesia’s often-brutal occupation ended in 1999, but outside the rundown colonial kitsch of the capital Dili, poverty is high, electricity and running water are intermittent, or unavailable, and jobs are scarce. Neither oil nor gas can be processed in Timor-Leste, so despite the boost to state coffers, there are few jobs for Timorese.
Irish Aid is working with the Timorese Government and the International Labor Organisation to support small business development. One woman who seems to get the entrepreneurial idea is Teresa Nunes Martins dos Santos, who like most Timorese has an almost-poetic Portuguese-style name, one of the few benign colonial legacies left to the Timorese.
Teresa and four colleagues in the western town of Liquica are making tasty tofu and tempe – affordable protein for rural Timorese who cannot afford to buy meat. The tofu-making team are trying to expand the business and have commissioned a carpenter to make 4 extra wooden boxes needed to finish the soybean paste into tofu.
“Every day we sell out almost straight away and make US$16.50” she says.
Some other investors have bigger plans, however. Tony Jape is a fifth generation Chinese-Timorese whose ancestors came to the half-island country from Guangdong province. He is the driving force behind Timor Plaza, a multi-storey office, shopping and hotel complex under construction – albeit more slowly than planned – near the Dili’s international airport.
He says he was partly-motivated by patriotism to take what he concedes is a risky venture. “If we Timorese do not invest in our own country, then we cannot complain when foreign investors are wary”, he says, amid the din of jackhammers and drills on the top floor of the complex.
Other things are slowly falling into place. Kathleen Goncalves is Vice President of the recently-formed Timor-Leste Chamber of Commerce. She acknowledges that progress will be slow for business development in the country, but says things have improved
“2 years ago setting up a business was a nightmare, with red tape, slow processing. That has changed somewhat, but we still have a problem with access to finance, as bank loans are difficult to get”
– For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Railaco, Timor-Leste
– reporting supported by the Simon Cumbers Media FundShow