In a “wise” move Timorese women venture into business after decades of conflict

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

When Timor-Leste descended into a political crisis in April/May 2006, just five years after the restoration of independence from Indonesia, Mrs. Joaquina Da Silva, a 33 year-old mother of four was among the first group of women displaced from the capital, Dili. She then fled to the safe havens of Baucau which is her ancestral homeland.

’When our house was destroyed in Dili, I came here with my displaced family and just nothing else,’ she says, her voice chocking with emotion. Now a resident of Baucau, some 120 kilometres east of Dili, Noi as she is better known is a heroine of sorts, a relatively successful businesswoman whose trade in flower vases is the talk of the town and beyond. She has an operating capital of about US $ 1,200 in just three months, and among her customers are high-profile clients including representatives of diplomatic missions and top government officials.

’I want to make all of my country beautiful with flowers,’ she relates, adding, ’If you visit some other countries which have not been affected by war, you will notice flowers all over the place, so in this era of peace why not Timor-Leste?’

That romantic vision for her country is shared by a group of ten women employed by Noi, courtesy of an International Labour Organization and United Nations Development Programme assistance package facilitated by the Bureau of Crisis Prevention and Recovery (BCRP) in New York. It is part of a comprehensive US $ 539,000 six months quick impact project entitled Women in Self Employment (WISE) based in the districts of Baucau, Lautem and Viqueque. Executed by ILO, it’s implemented in close collaboration with the Directory of Vocational Training and the Directory of Employment of the Secretary of State for Vocational Training and Employment.

With More than half of the displaced people that are living with host communities in the countryside forced to resettle in these three eastern districts of the country, they were also the most affected by the civil unrest that occurred in connection with the announcement of the new government on the 6th of August 2007 following the 30th of June parliamentary elections.

The WISE approach is bottoms-up, based on strategic partnerships with local organisations and institutions, providing selected vulnerable women with resources and practical skills for venturing into business. Project activities—conceptualised by the women themselves— focus on small scale production of popular consumer items like tamarind candies, banana chips, coconut oil and the Indonesian delicacies toufu and tempe. Others are engaged in mulberry tree and silkworm cultivation, as well as cotton production.

In total, 16 enterprises have been initiated by various groups within the three districts, supporting 312 direct beneficiaries.

’The activities create employment opportunities for us, reducing dependence on our husbands and improving the family income,’ observes Anna, a mother of five and leader of the twenty-member Makiban group in Bucoli located about 13 kilometres from Baucau town. The group specializes in tamarind candies which are sold to the nearby retail outlets and institutions. It has been accruing on average US $ 130 monthly savings since it was formed in April 2008.

Crisscrossing the countryside, Economy and Development minister Jo?o Mendes Gon?alves works relentlessly, meeting each of the groups as well as individual members, listening to their concerns and inspiring them to form cooperatives so they can be mainstreamed into government support mechanisms.

’If we consider the economic situation and poverty around the country and even the low education of the people in the rural areas, it suggests that the best way to develop our people is through cooperative groups,’ he says, adding, ’the backbone of the economy of Timor-Leste is actually micro business and then once we develop them they have the potential and capacity to develop into mini enterprises in the future.’

The irony of his country’s situation is of course, not lost to the minister. ’We are rich country but poor people,’ he remarks, in jest. With vast oil and gas reserves, the tiny Asia-Pacific nation of an estimated one million people should ideally be able to take off on a path of rapid growth and development.

But this remains elusive. ’We are a new nation, with new institutions and structures with little human resources so we are faced with all difficulties that a newly-born child is faced with including the need to be taken care of and looked after.’ He is grateful to development partners like ’UNDP and ILO, AusAID, US Aid, the European Union, the German Cooperation and JICA’ whose presence he says, has served as a catalyst to economic development. ’I don’t think for instance we could have groups like these in the rural areas if we didn’t have this type of support,’ he says.

In fact, some groups have been so successful that they have been ’infiltrated’ by some men who are equally keen to partake of the new-found fortune. ’Although our target is women, we cannot dictate membership or group dynamics’ reckons Ruth Jorge, UNDP Project Monitoring Officer, WISE.

However, experts say that without a vibrant business atmosphere in the country, the group effort might not be sustainable. ’The entrepreneurial spirit in Timor-Leste is very weak,’ states Fernando Encarna??o, Youth Employment and Community Empowerment specialist with the ILO Liaison Office in Timor-Leste. ’For instance there’s need to link producers to the market and not vice-versa,’ he explains, noting that they are encouraging the groups to do so.

With UNDP/ILO partnership, synergies have also been established with other initiatives like the Skills Training for Gainful Employment (STAGE) a US$ 6 million European Commission -funded project that aims at building national capacity to ’deliver a demand driven enterprise and skills training contributing to the establishment and development of income generating activities for both men and women within communities.’

Be that as it may, the likes of Noi see their enterprises as offering a new beginning in the post conflict phase. Her house, a semi-permanent structure tucked besides the Baucau Road is made conspicuous by the lining of freshly painted and attractive flower vases ready for sale. The home is a beehive of activity. ’If we can all truly embrace the concept of beauty, our country will have genuine peace and prosperity,’ she says metaphorically.

Source: UNDP (link opens in a new window)