Words Tanushree Rao
Photos Tanushree Rao & Ramy Loveridge

How to Build a Food Economy When Nobody's Heard of You

Feb 06, 2017

The descent into A-grade Oceania begins barely an hour outside the Australian mainland. Silvery clouds, deep shades of green-blue ocean, and miles-long beaches appear against a backdrop of huge mountains cradling the capital, Dili.

Welcome to Timor-Leste.

Timor-Leste (translating to “East East”) is a former Portuguese colony with a starkly different culture, religion, and history to its surrounding neighbors. Only 14 years old, the country was born out of a decades-long civil war with Indonesia. The independence movement culminated in 1999, and a brand new country emerged from its cocoon in 2002.

As one of the newest countries on Earth, Timor has come a long way in rebuilding itself over the past 15 years, but it’s still considered one of the least economically developed countries. More than 50% of inhabitants live below the poverty line. It’s one of the most oil-dependent nations on the planet, and with globally decreasing demand for oil and gas energy, there’s a pressing need for a more diverse economy.

Enter that big complex challenge: food. How do you feed your population when food isn’t readily available? How do you create demand so farmers can gain wealth? How do you empower subsistence farmers to meet that demand? How do you improve market literacy so growers can gain wealth?

A huge amount of Timor’s food is imported, with dozens of ships gracing Dili’s stunning coastline each day. People buy international food, which translates into a diverse, global menu for many of Timor’s restaurants and cafés, incorporating tastes of Indonesia, Australia, and Portugal, among others. There’s minimal demand for local food. What’s more, Timor’s aid economy (not to mention the stunning, pristine beaches) has invited a large expat community. Given the cost, it’s often foreigners (malae in Tetun, the national language) who dine out, and the main demographic restaurants and cafés cater to.

It’s not always possible to buy local, but many businesses do try. At Black Rock Resort and Restaurant in the Liquiçá district (around an hour from Timor’s capital Dili), the menu features nasi goreng and Timorese-style fried chicken side by side with good ol’ sammie and chips. While their steak comes from New Zealand and the olives from other regions, their fish (including whole big barramundi) is a local catch you’ll find many youngsters selling on the streets of Dili.

“It’s important to support the people here—they’re very happy we have this restaurant,” said Hindum Langko, who has worked at Black Rock for four years. “They say they’re very happy they have money because of the business here, as we’re getting local fresh food right from the people that grow it.”

This attitude is indicative of how Timor has started building its national food economy in just 15 years of existence. Taking small steps, locals are recognizing what grows in abundance on their land: root vegetables, aubergines, lettuce, passionfruit, and more. Rice isn’t so profitable in Timor, but it’s cheap to import from Vietnam (which is fortunate, as it’s a staple for Timorese families).

It’s a luxury for many to see food as more than a life-sustaining necessity, but as Timor generates more and more wealth for those who need it, food is starting to become a meaningful element of society that brings people together.

Peter Dougan, an Australian living in Timor-Leste, is aiming to make the most of what Timor grows best. Commonly known as “Farm Pro Pete” in the Dili circles, Peter and his fresh produce enterprise manager Inacia Immaculada were the pioneers behind farm-fresh boxes that get delivered from farmers straight to hotspots in Dili. But it’s his Timorese staff who steer the ship of Farm Pro, from agricultural workers to business graduates. They hope to increase wealth for Timorese farmers and tap into Timor’s existing strengths to maximize profit by working directly with a network of 50 farmers, many of them representing a family or group of families.

“We want to help farmers, and look at it in a way that can be profitable for everyone,” Peter says. “With veg, you can plant bok choy today, harvest it in six weeks, and sell it. So the cash flow’s fast in this market, whereas with others it can be a long process.” Faster turnover is a better outcome for farmers with otherwise extremely low income, allowing them to profitably continue their work.

While a local food economy may be in the picture over the long term, Farm Pro’s focus is predominantly on improving farmer wealth—and much of its market is likely to be exports. This is partly because some things are difficult to grow, or have too high a production cost to be economical in the short term (such as soy beans). The focus is on the grower, their families, and their immediate livelihoods. “I’d love to have 1000 families in Ermera district, working with them to create a strong livelihood for their families,” shares Peter.

Farm Pro is also looking to high-value markets in Dili to help generate wealth for those who need it and get the supply and demand cycle moving. Tapping into the same markets, a ‘food studio’ called Agora has recently opened for customers in Dili. Its goal is to get people to engage with the local food market—starting with focusing on local education, support for Timorese farmers, events that bring people together over local food, sales of locally produced products, and a café that’s already gained a reputation for delicious Timorese cuisine with a twist. The more demand there is for café-fresh food, the more Agora can purchase from local growers.

The Agora Food Studio lab is highly experimental and keeps its flavor possibilities broad and its waste minimal. But co-founder Mark Notaras names two key challenges in making local food matter: “A lot of people come to Timor and they bypass the local markets,” he says. “There’s a fear factor involved in getting local products—fear around health and safety, knowing what things are, how to cook them, how to use them, not liking to bargain. Then, a couple years before they leave, they regret it. What we’re trying to do is cut out those two years, and get people when they arrive, give them information—so they can demand more local products for themselves, have the confidence to go the market and buy things, or at least ask for it in a restaurant or when they visit a Timorese family.”

Demand for Timorese food would have a hugely positive effect on the Timorese economy. Agora’s vision is a food system in Timor-Leste that people can be proud of. “Many local people aren't proud of their food at the moment; there’s a poverty associated with it. We’re trying to completely flip that paradigm and bring out nationalistic pride in people’s food,” says Mark.

These initiatives are stepping stones to an economy founded on community, pride, and shared values beginning to emerge in Timor. It’s a luxury for many to see food as more than a life-sustaining necessity, but as Timor generates more and more wealth for those who need it, food is starting to become a meaningful element of society that brings people together. Mark sums it up: “You have to taste food, you have to smell food. It’s not a transaction of eating and paying for it. It’s about exchanging values.”