Timor-Leste coffee has taken strides in recent years and has had an impact on the global industry that goes far beyond its share of production.
Africa and South or Central America may be more synonymous with coffee production, but the Pacific Islands are also home to a diverse array of origin countries. Timor-Leste in particular has had a noteworthy history.
In the 1950s, the small nation provided a saving grace to the global coffee industry struggling with coffee leaf rust in the form of Hibrido de Timor (HDT). A naturally occurring crossbreed of Arabica and Robusta coffee, HDT combined the former’s flavour profile with the latter’s strong rust and climate resistance. It was exported and bred around the world to create stronger coffee plants, many of which are still planted today.
But after the discovery of HDT, Timor-Leste played a rather small role on the world stage. In 2015, the paper ‘Timor-Leste Coffee: Marketing the “Golden Prince” in Post-crisis Conditions’ from the journal Food, Culture & Society put its contribution at 0.2 per cent of total production.
Despite this, coffee cultivation is very important to the Timor-Leste economy. Yuki Ebizawa, Country Representative/Director of non-governmental organisation Peace Winds Japan (PWJ) in Timor-Leste and local social enterprise and specialty coffee trader Café Brisa Serena, says as the nation’s third largest export in 2019, the coffee industry supports about 25 per cent of the population. As such, since being recognised as an independent state in 2002, coffee has been a key driver of diversifying Timor-Leste’s economy.
“In the Indonesian colonial period, there was not much attention given to the coffee quality as it was mainly sold as commodity product, and coffee buyers focused only on collecting quantity. Thus, it has also contributed to the low price for Timor-Leste coffee in overseas markets,” Ebizawa says.
Beside HDT, Timor Leste’s main differentiator on the market has been the almost exclusive production of organic coffee. But in the last five years or so, the nation’s understanding of – and focus on – coffee quality has skyrocketed.
“Compared to other famous coffee-producing countries, the coffee production of Timor-Leste was overwhelmingly small, and it was difficult to compete with them in terms of production. Thus, we focused on improving coffee quality, rather than adding quantity to improve coffee farmers’ livelihoods,” Ebizawa says.
PWJ helped established Cafe Brisa Serena in 2010 with the aim of improving the quality of life of coffee farmers in Timor-Leste by offering technical assistance on organic farming management, coffee rehabilitation, building new wet mills for farmers, provide capacity building and create marketing strategy to support farmers to enter specialty coffee market. It now exports coffee to large markets, including Japan, the United States, and Europe.
In 2014, Cafe Brisa Serena launched Cafe Letefoho in 2014, “the first specialty coffee shop in Timor-Leste”.
“Until we launched our shop, even many Timorese people didn’t know that Timor-Leste produces high-quality coffee, but now many people recognise and are proud of the high-quality coffee representing the country,” Ebizawa says. “We opened our café for the purpose of creating job opportunities in the coffee industry for the youth. If the children of coffee farmers were to engage in the coffee industry, there was [only the] option to become a coffee farmer in the past, but [now, they can] engage in coffee in a different way.”
Like Ebizawa and PWJ, several individuals, businesses, and non-government organisations saw potential in Timor-Leste’s coffee production and began initiatives to help the sector. But they and the government quickly realised collective action was needed to boost the sector.
In 2016, Andrew Hetzel, Founder of Coffee Strategies, visited Timor-Leste as a consultant to assess the prospect of forming a private sector-led coffee industry association in Timor-Leste. Hetzel tells Global Coffee Report Timor-Leste is a producing country unlike any other.
“The growing conditions are extraordinary… Tall, misty hills with cool night and bright warm sun during the day and fertile soil. The trees are old and essentially growing wild in the countryside – which makes them unproductive – but potential for quality is extraordinary,” Hetzel says. “Unlike many other origins, the people are long-time coffee drinkers. The Timorese appreciate the beverage as more than a cash crop. Understanding the importance of coffee culture has been a bridge for the younger generation to advance 200-year-old farming practices and join modern specialty markets.”
Assosiasaun Café Timor was formalised in 2016, bringing together the nation’s farmers, traders, even roasters and baristas, to create a more unified coffee industry. Afonso Oliveira, Agribusiness Program Manager of Timor Global, has served as the association’s Vice-President since its inception and says it has so far fulfilled this goal.
“Our main objective is to bring together all stakeholders in the coffee industry, so we can work together to improve the quality and meet demands from the international market,” says Oliveira. “Before, farmers worked their own way, and it was the same with buyers and baristas. Now, they can help each other to improve. The quality of a coffee is not dependent on one person, it’s on all those involved in the chain.”
One of Assosiasaun Café Timor’s first initiatives was to launch Festival Kafe Timor, an annual event that promotes Timor-Leste coffee. The festival, which is also home to a National Barista Championship and Coffee Quality Competition, has proved to be a boon for the industry.
In 2017 Julia Ximenes, formerly of Agora Food Studio, was crowned Timor-Leste’s first National Barista Champion and reclaimed her title in 2018.
“The festival and its competitions changed the mindset of the industry. Coffee shops began involving their baristas in more training, so they can make better quality coffee and cup it to tell good from bad,” Ximenes says. “That’s improved how they work from day to day. In the next few years, I think many coffee shops will open not only in the city but the districts and municipalities.”
The Coffee Quality Competition has served as a benchmark for the nation’s farmers to measure their coffees. In 2019, Timor Global submitted a natural process coffee from Fatubessi, Ermera in the competition, which won with 88 cupping points. This marks Timor-Leste’s highest scoring coffee to date.
“We saw a lot more interest from buyers around the world for that coffee, to the point there wasn’t enough of it to meet demand,” Oliveira says. “Now some of these buyers are purchasing some of our member’s coffees, so we hope to strengthen these relationships.”
With its current and upcoming generations the first to be raised in a self-governed state, Coffee Strategies’ Hetzel says Timor-Leste is benefitting from a sense of ownership and motivation among younger coffee farmers and traders.
“I’m very excited by what’s happened in just the past few years – young people learning about best practices in coffee as baristas and farmers. They’re taking that knowledge back from the capital city of Dili and abroad to their home villages. It’s been a difficult path, but I believe we’re seeing entrepreneurs bloom now, and they’re very interested in coffee,” he says.
Mariano ‘Ameta’ da Costa Alves is one such young Timorese citizen to embrace coffee production. Despite growing up in the coffee growing region of Atsabe, Ameta’s first step into the coffee industry was as a barista at Café Letefoho.
“They were looking for a barista and wanted someone that came from coffee regions and farms. I did not know what a barista was or what they do until I went in there and got trained,” Ameta says.
Café Letefoho sent Ameta to training and education sessions in Indonesia and Japan so he could share that new information with his co-workers. At the Japanese event, a farmer’s conference, he was introduced to the concept of natural and honey processing methods by producers from African countries.
“That opened my mind to how there’s not just one way to make coffee, and we can do things differently to improve the coffee quality,” Ameta says.
Upon returning, Ameta applied to work as a seasonal fruit picker in neighbouring Australia for two months to raise the funds to start his own coffee processing business. Access to capital allowed him to purchase drying bed materials, a laptop, and a motorcycle for transport – to set up a natural processing station on his family’s farm. The coffee processed there was popular locally, but Ameta knew he would need to do more.
“I wanted to develop the coffee [production] across Atsabe, but only selling in the local market wouldn’t be enough. I could process my own family’s coffee and just sell it locally, but not my neighbours’ or the community’s,” Ameta says.
In 2018, Ameta received support from the New Zealand Embassy in Timor-Leste to join Flight Coffee in New Zealand to learn more about roasting and coffee operations across the value-chain. Having made contact with Matt Graylee, Director of Raw Material in New Zealand, Timor-Leste has since been a priority origin for the coffee trader and social enterprise. Ameta even began leading Raw Material’s work in the country, including the production of a wet mill in Atsabe.
“We strongly believe the future of Timor-Leste coffee is in the specialty market… The country is set up to be able to compete in the quality arena, with its high altitudes, forest-gardens, and tenacious, adaptable, caring culture. If tomorrow is going to look better than yesterday, reaching the specialty market is a must,” Graylee tells GCR. “Every three months global demand for specialty coffee increases by more than the total annual output of Timor-Leste. It is an incredible and obvious opportunity.”
Two coffees from the wet mill placed third and fifth in the 2018 Coffee Quality Competition, while a naturally processed coffee of Ameta’s won the competition. He says this really helped show farmers the benefits of new processing methods.
“When people see someone else win and companies want to buy their coffee, it makes them want to win too, so they try to develop what they are doing,” Ameta says.
While there has been significant growth in the Timor-Leste coffee industry, there are still challenges that must be overcome. To date, Timor-Leste has enjoyed limited exposure to coronavirus with only 32 positive cases to date, but the country has felt the flow-on effect the pandemic has had on global coffee demand. Low prices also disincentivise many from entering the industry, especially when some traders do little to help the situation.
“One of the biggest problems is that the company that buys the coffee doesn’t always help the farmer, to train them or give them information so they understand how to get the best or right coffee,” Ameta says. “The company that buys the coffee says ‘give me this quality and we’ll give you this price’, but the farmer doesn’t know what to do with the coffee. Until the company or expert tells them ‘if you pick the right cherry and process it this way, it will give you higher quality and we’ll pay you more for this batch’. If the coffee stays the same, so does the price.”
With many industry actors and aid agencies working to change this dynamic, PWJ’s Ebizawa says Timor-Leste’s outlook remains positive.
“These days, many producers notice the importance of quality, and generally, the coffee has been improving,” Ebizawa says.
“People will come to know Timor-Leste through its coffee, like famous producing countries in Africa and South America.”
This article appears in the November/December 2020 edition of Global Coffee Report. Subscribe HERE.