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

Over the last year, David Baker has been volunteering with a government agency in Timor-Leste to help support foreign investment in the country, and promote Timorese exports. Here is David’s story.

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. 

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Fisherman from Dili, Timor-Leste. Photo: Harjono Djoyobisono
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Onion trader, Dili, Timor-Leste. Photo: Harjono Djobisono

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, which has a high-end fashion brand called ‘Ita Nia’, which is establishing a presence in the Australian market.

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A design by ITA NIA, a Timorese fashion brand with sights set on Australia. Photo: Calvin Teoh / ITA NIA
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Fashion design by ITA NIA, a high-end fashion brand in Timor-Leste. Photo: Calvin Teoh / ITA NIA

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.  

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Harvesting chilis, Lisadilia, Timor-Leste. Photo: Dean Sewell / Oculi / Agence Vu for WaterAid
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Australian volunteer David Baker (left) with a friend in Timor-Leste. Supplied: David Baker

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.