Sandalwood, ai-manas and goat cheese

USAID’s latest press release caught my attention. It is about funding for three Timorese hortaculturalists to visit Bali to learn about supply-storage and distribution issues with “high value” vegetable production.

Among other things, it states that Timor imports over 35 tons of foreign fruit and vegetables a month. I imagine 34 tons of this is consumed by the expat community. Perhaps part of the project could be seeing how to increase the Timorese middle class’ own consumption of these exotic vegetables.

The rationale behind the project is good — corner that internal market for fruit and veg. But how ‘sustainable’ is this idea? When UNMIT inevitably shrinks down again, and the NGO presence with it… Recalling that the decline in Timor’s GDP after UNTAET/UNMISET was directly correlated to the shrinkage of the international presence. According to the ABD: “The latest official projections are for a decline in GDP over FY2004 (12 months ended 30 June 2004) and again in FY2005, on the basis of the continued winding-down of the operations of the UN and the peacekeeping forces …”

When the dust settles from these crisis months/years, Timor will be back to the basic questions. Beyond the Timor Gap, there is the even longer-term issue: how to manage its economy so that people have sustainable rural livelihoods and so that there are some jobs in services and light industry?

While living there, value-added products Timor could export kept coming to mind. Timor has to create niches for export based on cultural appeal for the “conscious consumer.” Let the market research in Australia begin. (If this has started I would love to hear about it!)

Beer — I know it’s been tried, but not with the right model. A high-end, export-only beer for Australian and European market.

Goat cheese — I was told the bibis cannot produce enough milk. Then there are cold storage issues. But people said this about the cows at Fuiloro, and after sustained investment and technical input the cows provide milk for tens of thousands of school kids. Would Australians be interested in Timorese goat cheese?

Ai-manas hot sauce — Has gained fame the world over with informal ‘export’ by expats living in Timor. My mouth waters just thinking about the ai-manas I bought last year in Maubisse. Portuguese piri-piri chicken has been branded, why not ai-manas?

Rattan furniture/home decorations — I know Timor’s neighbors make this stuff. But Timor could seek out a particular niche. According to Wallpaper magazine, rattan furniture is back. Japanese vendors are hyping higher-end accessories.

Sandalwood rosaries — Sounds silly, huh? But I wonder where the majority of the world’s rosaries come from. A cursory Google search indicates: China, where Catholicism is in a bad way! The Vatican could give Timor a little edge in the competition. Cash in on the Catholic connection!

Hi-end outdoor gear with clever branding — Import basically everything from mainland you-know-where, stitch some pieces together and brand it in a really cool way, maybe with an allusion to Falintil or Timorese hard-as-nails mountain people. Build the brand in the Australian market.

I can just see myself sitting on a lovely Timorese rattan chair, wearing a Falintil-approved windbreaker, eating Timorese goat-cheese with a touch of ai-manas, packing up my made-in-Baucau sandalwood rosary to send to a pious relative and sipping on a high-end Timorese beer.

Oh, and I will be reading a brochure about visiting Konis Santana National Park.


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