Coffee, clothes and democracy: supporting Timor-Leste through Trade

How Australian volunteers are helping to boost Timor-Leste’s economy by supporting small businesses to grow and expand their markets.

David Baker recently volunteered as Trade Promotions Strategist in Timor-Leste, working with a government agency to help build investments in small businesses and promote exports from the country. Here David explains his role and how he has been amazed by the range of small businesses doing amazing things in Timor-Leste.

Woman in a white outfit.

Designs by ITA NIA, a Timorese fashion brand with sights set on Australia. Credit: Calvin Tech / ITA NIA

It was less than 20 years ago that Timor-Leste established its first democratic government.

A Timorese friend of mine told me that as a resistance fighter in the 1990s he thought that independence would take 100 years. He now works in international relations for a self-determining people who remind me that anything is possible.

In a country where jobs are scarce and more than 70 per cent of the population relies on subsistence farming, the work of TradeInvest Timor-Leste (TITL) is really important in creating employment. TITL’s mission is to make it easier for foreign investors and exporters to do business in Timor-Leste.

As a volunteer Trade Promotion Strategy Advisor at TITL, I have worked with the team to develop a three-year strategy to support productive enterprise.

I have been fortunate to travel throughout the country, enjoying the diverse and beautiful landscapes and meeting wonderful people.

A highlight of my volunteering experience has been to conduct the second ‘Annual Export Awards’ to celebrate the success of Timorese exporters and recognise the efforts of potential exporters.

The winner of ‘Exporter of the year’ was a 20-year-old organisation called Cooperativa Cafe Timor (CCT). CCT coordinates the activities of small coffee and other agricultural growers to form a cooperative to sell Timorese products locally and overseas.

The winner of ‘Potential Exporter of the year’ was a start-up called Mahanaim[1], which has a high-end fashion brand called ‘Ita Nia’, which is establishing a presence in the Australian market.

At TITL we have visited farmers, tourist operators, manufacturers, fishers, cottage industries and merchants.

I have been amazed at the range of small businesses producing handicrafts, wonderful coffee, food products, manufactured goods and women’s fashion: all made in Timor-Leste by local people.

The TITL team and I have worked with local businesses engaged in agriculture, fisheries, construction and a range of other sectors.

We have worked with Australian-funded development partners, including Market Development Facility (MDF), which explores ways of getting Timorese businesses access to markets; and TOMAK (also known as ‘Farming for Prosperity’), which supports farmers.

We have liaised with different ministries in Timor-Leste, including the Ministry of Tourism and the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries to guide policy to promote economic growth.

The knowledge we’ve gained has helped the team at TITL advise the Timorese Government, local industry associations and agricultural cooperatives on policy and actions to help increase employment in Timor-Leste through greater economic activity.

Timor-Leste has come a long way since independence from Indonesia in 1999. Undoubtedly the country has faced many challenges and a great deal of people have lost family and friends during the years of violence. Despite this harrowing past, I am inspired by the spirit and optimism of the people of Timor-Leste.

[1] Mahanaim’s vision is to be an innovative business that empowers women. Mahanaim creates job opportunities in a new industry and enables its staff to develop transferable technical skills through exposure to dressmakers and designers. The company also supports its workers with health and welfare issues, including family planning and maternal health.

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