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Boosting local incomes in Timor-Leste

Published on 25th January 2016

Volunteer marketing advisor Tennant Fenton established a model of farming cooperatives for rural Timor-Leste that he estimates generated US$96,000 in income, in a country where the average rural income per person is US$50 a month.


VSA volunteer Tennant Fenton with a group of Bobonaro soybean growers

VSA volunteer Tennant Fenton with a group of Bobonaro soybean growers


His project, which is funded by New Zealand Aid and run by World Vision, is tackling poverty by boosting farmer livelihoods through better access to markets.


Bobonaro district, which borders Indonesia, was hit hard by the violence that followed Timor-Leste’s vote for independence in 1999. Six out of 10 Bobonaro children are smaller than average because of malnutrition.


Tiny local markets can never deliver sufficient income to lift farmers out of poverty so the obvious market is the capital Dili, home to one in six of Timor-Leste’s 1.2 million people. After knocking on the doors of Dili food processors, supermarkets, hotels and restaurants, Tennant’s project team discovered the product most in demand is the cheap, versatile and protein-packed soybean.


When the farmers, government officials and village heads accepted a marketing plan, good quality seed was sourced locally from the inland town of Maubisse. Planting began in June 2014 and the soybeans thrived. In mid-August 2014 the farmers’ leaders visited Dili to meet the tofu and tempeh producers. For the first time, the farmers began to grasp how they could fit into a national supply chain, and sold 25 tonnes of soybeans.


Tennant worked to apply that model with farming groups producing high-demand products, like the soybeans, as well as more specialist crops such as melons, which require more input but demand a higher price. A significant proportion of the 2015 soybean sales went to women’s groups producing tempeh. Tempeh was then sold on to a school feeding programme with the benefits of improved nutrition for children.


Tennant says one of the great benefits has been that young people are starting to see farming as a career, rather than something to do just for subsistence. The project has provided real opportunities in a country with a booming young population, for whom there are few other jobs.


Tennant Fenton and soy bean farmers in Timor-Leste

Tennant Fenton and soy bean farmers



  • Steve Judson on 23rd February

    It's really good to read of a success story in improving income of the 80% majority of Timorese, ie those living outside Dili eking out a subsistence living based on agriculture. I do hope that the initiative is self sustaining giving hope of less malnutrition in Bobanaro in future and a spring board repeating the soy bean story in other TL districts and with other crops. Many of our volunteer efforts are at Head Office level and we are not certain of the ultimate outcome. Because Tennant has been prepared to live remotely, with few comforts and only a tiny fellow group of "malae", we can be sure of the impact of the project. Congratulations Tennant (and by the way you take a great photo). Steve

  • Jenifer on 25th January

    How helpful it's. Hope I can be one of the volunteer❤️

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