State Of Urgency: Adapting Agribusiness to Maintain Timor-Leste Food Supply
Timor-Leste, one of the youngest countries in the world, is facing many of the same challenges as other countries in South East Asia as borders shut down and governments move to protect the people through social distancing polices.
In the face of the crisis, the people and businesses in Timor-Leste have shown resilience in quickly moving to adopt new behaviors and practices.
In late March, Timor-Leste’s government declared a State of Emergency as part of the ongoing global effort to stop the virus’ spread. While the government’s edict allowed for the flow of essential products and services, there was confusion around the implementation of the law at the local level.
Police began enforcing a more conservative interpretation of the new law.
Agricultural traders in Timor-Leste were suddenly met with unexpected roadblocks, travel restrictions, health and safety requirements, and social distancing measures enforced by municipal police.
The flow of goods was considerably halted.
Daily transport of produce around the country – most importantly to Dili, the capital, where approximately 20 percent of the total population resides – was put to test. Many households across the country depend on wet markets to purchase food for daily consumption.
This abrupt prevention of goods transport was felt immediately. Local markets were closed on the South Coast. Farmers were not allowed to travel from one municipality to the other to barter goods. The capital city saw public transport suspended and strict measures on use of personal vehicles, including the main family transport mode of motorbikes.
Within a few days, markets and shops experienced shortages of fresh vegetables. And perishable vegetables risked going bad on farms while the need for balanced nutrition was as important as ever. The disruption had major income and food security implications.
Rapid response, adaptive management
USAID’s Avansa Agrikultura Project in Timor-Leste is a horticultural market systems project that has strengthened market linkages and transformed subsistence farming practices through the past six critical years. Through innovative approaches private sector investment, household incomes, and nutrition outcomes have greatly improved, with more 32,000 farmers reached. The project has helped catalyze a growing base of collectors, organized farmers into producer groups to meet demand, and strengthened linkages with retailers, hotels, and other end-markets in Dili.
When the team heard the flow of goods was disrupted by the state of emergency, Avansa experts immediately responded by moving to address issues at the local level where the misunderstandings between authorities, producers, and collectors were occurring concerning the new COVID regulations.
Within a few days, vegetables were flowing freely again.
Project-supported collectors were armed with formal letters for the local police, copies of the official regulations from the Prime Minister’s Office authorizing essential movement – including the movement of produce to markets, and an understanding of the sanitation and social distancing practices they needed to follow in order to stay safe and be in compliance.
Adopting real-time tech as adaptive tool
Changes which might have taken months under normal conditions have been accelerated to a matter of days under the COVID-19 crisis. As practitioners of Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA), USAID’s Avansa Agrikultura Project experts took a flexible approach to recognize and see new patterns of technologies and relationships that began to emerge.
The developing agriculture sector in Timor has depended heavily on in-person meetings for relationship building and deal making.
The COVID-19 situation has forced rapid adoption of other forms of interaction, which will improve communication and transparency in the longer term.
The project was supporting Timorese agribusinesses to overcome the challenges preventing the flow of goods while the whole project team smoothly and quickly adapted to working from home – and in some cases quite remotely – for the first time in a matter of days.
IT and communication bumps were navigated and circumvented as the office moved overnight from systems that were reflective of the local culture and centered on in-person meetings, group engagement, and hardcopy technology delivery tools, to ones that are predominantly electronic and remote.
The project scaled up the use of WhatsApp chat groups, linking field staff across the five project offices and six municipalities. Despite challenging internet connectivity, the ever-resourceful team was able to communicate with each other across a variety of platforms and geographic locations.
Project experts then expanded the use of already popular WhatsApp groups to other stakeholders.
In one group, supermarkets send a list of the products that they need to buy to meet the continued market demand. Collectors reply with the items they can deliver, with real-time farmer inventory knowledge, saving the delay in previous back-and-forth, in-person communications.
This communication and organization structure capitalizes on geographic production strengths. For example, collectors from Maubisse can take the orders for broccoli and cauliflower, where they thrive, and collectors from Maliana can manage the requests for bitter gourd and watermelon.
Project experts also helped farmers organize into WhatsApp chat groups. As a result, collectors have actually increased their direct communications with farmers. The project-assisted transition of parties in the system to digital solutions yielded greater and more up-to-date collectors’ knowledge regarding the availability of farmers’ products.
Project staff monitor the exchanges and provide remote assistance, including helping to facilitate discussions as an honest broker during a disagreement.
In recent weeks, our project held a series of Facebook Live events targeted towards youth. The online workshop addressed job search strategies, C.V. preparations, and interview skills – areas of greater importance as the country’s workspace continues rapidly changing.
Moving forward, the project is expanding on this to include training with lecturers from project supported Technical Vocational Schools onto this platform. Other methods to deliver trainings and provide refresher knowledge is also being explored based on the available technologies had by farmers and other counterparts.
These platforms were well-received by all parties, from farmers to end-recipients. We continue to work with our partners to further improve the exchange, ensure future sustainability by improving planning and coordination, and reducing food waste.
With a mind to supporting frameworks that can stand in the post-COVID-19 world, we will continue to provide support to private sector partners in scaling up technology based business models. ICT for agriculture has been historically underutilized in Timor-Leste, but its quick adoption under the crisis shows the potential demand and uptake capability.
The private sector, the government, and the people of Timor-Leste are quickly adjusting to meet the needs of the new COVID-19 reality and beyond. The safety and health of the people are rightfully driving these changes, as well as the need for economic stability and food security. Many of the relationships and technological frameworks established now will help carry the country forward through the recovery phase and successfully into the evolving future.
USAID’s Avansa Agrikultura Project is bolstering these relationships and frameworks in ways that will contribute to the long-term development of Timor-Leste, and ultimately shape and strengthen the sustainability of food production, delivery, and marketing systems.
The measures set today will contribute to stabilizing responses and contributing to the nation’s self-reliance for the years to come.