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Selling soybeans: a Kiwi success story in Timor-Leste

Published on 30th June 2015

VSA volunteer Pat Martin worked as a Communications and Marketing Adviser with World Vision Timor-Leste. He met Tennant Fenton, a fellow VSA and World Vision volunteer, to explore Tennant’s soybean project.

Tennant, wearing his World Vision t-shirt, stands in a green field, smiles at the camera

Tennant Fenton

Working in one-degree chillers for giant horticultural co-op MG Marketing, Aucklander Tennant Fenton helped to bring around $1 million worth of Marlborough and Central Otago cherries to eager Kiwi shoppers in the frantic week before Christmas.


Today, as a volunteer in tropical Timor-Leste, he has helped a poor community in the west of the country generate US$18,000 from the sale of soybeans. That smaller sum might prove more significant in the long run, aiding a small, struggling nation to feed its people and build a sustainable industry.


Tennant is on a two-year assignment with VSA, working with World Vision. He now lives in Maliana, the biggest town in the district of Bobonaro which borders Indonesia.


Timor-Leste was left devastated after a 24-year occupation by Indonesia that ended with a vote for independence in 1999. As they withdrew, Indonesian forces and local Indonesian-backed militia went on a vengeful rampage. Evidence of the massacres can be seen in local cemeteries, the bombed-out buildings that still scar Maliana, and the stories of the survivors. Although the district is slowly recovering, six out of 10 Bobonaro children are smaller than average because of malnutrition. Half of Timor’s people get by on less than $US1.33 per day.


Tennant’s project, which is funded by the New Zealand Aid Programme and run by World Vision, aims to tackle poverty by boosting farmer livelihoods through providing them with better access to markets.


Tennant’s project team, including his local World Vision counterpart Liberato Mau Ferreira, began knocking on the doors of Dili food processors, supermarkets, hotels and restaurants to see what products they needed. Everything pointed to the cheap and versatile protein-packed soybean. It’s easy to grow, store and transport.


Four men and a woman stand amongst head-high soy plants

Bobonaro soy farmers. (Photo by Tennant Fenton.)


The next step was to convince Bobonaro farmers. “They were initially reluctant,” Tennant says. “They’re good judges of the risks involved and had no doubt they could grow soybeans. But they were fearful there would be no market. Their question was, ‘Can we sell it?’“


One group was from Maligo, 45 minutes by four-wheel drive along rocky, rutted roads from Maliana. Their leader, Antonio Soares, said the farmers were sceptical after other organisations had provided training but not followed through.


Determined not to make the same mistake, the project team put a marketing plan to Maliana farmers, government officials and village heads. Representatives from the supermarket chain K’manek and Timor Global coffee traders also spoke.


“This was the key point which encouraged some pivotal farmers to take the plunge,” Tennant says. Eighty-five farmers from Maligo joined up.


Step one was to source seed. Instead of importing expensive Indonesian and Australian seed, one buyer suggested buying it from Maubisse, an inland town high in the mountains with a cooler climate. The project team bought two tonnes of seed there, measured out in 12kg cooking oil cans for $15 a can.


A Timorese hand, lined with wrinkles, palm up, holding soy beans

Soy beans ready for processing. (Photo by Tennant Fenton.)


Planting began in June and the soybeans thrived. In mid-August the project team returned to Dili to finalise the sale of the harvest only to discover the buyers wouldn’t be ready. Detective work resumed. The team tracked tofu trails from Dili markets to a major tofu producer who imported container loads of United States soy every month, and to a collection of producers around Dili who used soy to make Tempeh.


Tennant organised for the Maliana farmers’ leaders to visit Dili and meet the new buyers. The trip was invaluable. For the first time, farmers began to grasp how they could fit into a national supply chain.


In late August, harvest began. After the farmers had threshed, dried and sorted the soy beans, the day earmarked to carry the first harvest to Dili arrived, Friday 3 October. But a deal for a truck to take five tonnes, tied off in 40kg sacks, fell over at the last moment. A smaller vehicle was quickly found.


“When this one turned up, the driver refused to load,” Tennant said. “He realised it would be unsafe to carry five tonnes in his smaller truck.”


Eventually Tennant found two small trucks, the soybeans were dispatched, the sale made and the payment divided among the farmers. He estimates that selling 25 tonnes in total put US$18,000 back into the local Maliana economy -- a lot of money in a country where the average rural income per person is $US600 a year. Maligo leader Antonio Soares can now contribute to his World Vision savings and loan scheme, and pay for the schooling of his eight children.




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