A Promising Visit To Our Timorese Preserving Hubs

A Promising Visit To Our Timorese Preserving Hubs

In late April, Corner Store Network CEO and Founder Alice Mahar headed across the Timor Sea to Timor-Leste for the first time in three years. The purpose of the trip was to check in on the two local preserving hubs, reconnect face-to-face with Timorese staff and workshop ideas for the future of Corner Store Network Timor-Leste (CSN TL). Alice came home from the trip amazed at the self-sufficiency of the hubs which have been developed and managed by the very capable and determined hands of Dina, Gotys and Joana throughout the pandemic.

Here’s what Alice had to say about her visit. 

It was pretty surreal to head back to Timor-Leste roughly three years after my last visit. Packing my bag and digging out my passport felt strange given covid lockdowns, and there was a sense of trepidation about getting on a plane and heading overseas given that we are still very much in the thick of the pandemic.

But landing in Dili felt familiar, with the sweat-inducing heat greeting me as I stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac. I was quickly reminded of the ‘go with the flow’ nature of Timor when told my bags were still in Darwin and that they wouldn’t be arriving for a few days.

Reuniting with CSN TL Country Managers, Dina and Gotys, was significant given the majority of our working partnership had been over Zoom, WhatsApp and phone calls. As important a role technology has played over the pandemic, it really isn’t a replacement for face to face conversations, proving the significance of human interaction.

On my second day, Dina and Gotys took me to Metinaru, a village about 30 minutes out of Dili where our flagship preserving hub is located. We drove along the main road to Baucau, stopping at fishing villages to buy the catch of the morning and hearing locals shout out questions to Gotys and Dina about coconut oil, a popular preserve sold at the hub. 

When I last visited in 2019, CSN TL was just a 20 foot shipping container housed in someone’s private yard. Whilst it was still an impressive sight, it paled in comparison to what they have achieved in the time since. We approached a beautiful timber fence, with a unique dome structure peeking up from behind. The gate opened up to reveal their magnificent preserving hub, so carefully and thoughtfully built utilising local elements like coconut wood. To the right stood a huge market garden, in full production with an array of leafy greens, tomato, chilies and passionfruit.

I met the eight women and two men employed through CSN TL and we sat around drinking coffee and eating rice wrapped in young coconut leaves, talking through Gotys and Dina about the organisation and their role in it. The team has been working so hard to get construction close to finished, and preserving under way - including fulfilling standing orders of coconut oil, teas, jams and chutneys to a number of local supermarkets. They have been working closely with women farmer groups out in the districts, sourcing local produce like coconuts, turmeric, vanilla, rice, tomatoes and pineapple and preserving it all back in the hub. This is giving rural farmers increased incomes and ensuring local produce is available to eat year round.
The team are also finalising construction before a formal launch in July where, along with the existing preservation work, they will open a coffee shop and restaurant that serves local produce cooked simply in a traditional Timorese style.

I spent some time with Joana (the 26 year old environmental entrepreneur you may remember reading about here), who is running CSN TL in the extremely remote mountainous area of Baguia. We attended a conference together where she spoke on the panel of the high youth rate in Timor and their opportunities for employment. Joana discussed the concept of social enterprise in Timor and how Timorese led social enterprises have the ability to provide employment opportunities to young people across the country whilst also benefiting the community. 

Seeing the hub in person is difficult to describe. Five years ago, I conceptualised a preserving program that operated out of shipping containers, but not in my wildest imagination did I envisage something on the scale that they have created in Metinaru and Baguia. The impact that it will have within the local community but also nationally for food security and nutrition could truly be something remarkable and it’s incredibly exciting to again begin to conceptualise its full potential. One thing we know is that organisations such as ours will only succeed if they are operated completely by locals for locals - something the team have proudly achieved.

WithOneSeed Founder and Corner Store Network Advisor, Andrew, and I were honoured to spend an hour with President José Ramos-Horta at his residence in Dili days after his election victory.

Whilst Andrew updated President Ramos-Horta on the WithOneSeed carbon forestry program and his role as Honorary Consul, I spoke of the preserving program, the impact it's having on communities and our mission to increase the amount of local food for local consumption across the country.

We took him locally produced coconut oil, coffee and sun-dried pineapple, which he tucked in to then and there.

Over the two weeks, we spent the majority of time out at the hub discussing new plans and ideas, ways to improve practices, recipes and strategising how the next 12 months will look. Plans that include micro-loans, increased distribution of local food across the country, and  a 6-8 week education and training course, where women come from all over Timor to learn skills relating to food preservation, regenerative agriculture and water and land management.

Having two young women in Dina and Joana running these programs in both an urban and rural setting is such an exciting thing for CSN TL, as is watching positive collaboration across the country to improve nutritional and food security outcomes for Timorese, by Timorese.