(Tetun) The key to improving the livelihoods of farming families in Timor-Leste is to increase crop production and expand market access, according to a 2014 study by Monash University.

Such activities would enable families to produce enough food to meet their basic needs, to benefit from economies of scale and to reduce post-harvest losses by selling surplus production in a timely manner.

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The Poverty and the agricultural household in Timor-Leste: Some patterns and puzzles study (or access Tetun version), released in June 2014, used detailed household data to analyse how the agriculture sector influences livelihoods and meets basic needs in Timor-Leste.

It found that the majority of households engage in subsistence, small-scale agriculture yet “agricultural productivity is very low”. These households typically produce insufficient food to meet basic needs, communally produce and share their food, don’t participate in formal markets and experience high-levels of post-harvest losses.

Results showed that a “large proportion of the food that is produced is not subsequently consumed”. Only a small quantity of food production is sold in markets, suggesting that a “relatively large proportion is shared informally across households”. This is attributed to a lack of formal markets for most products in many areas.

The report found that income sources affect food intake. Earning “increased income from selling food crops has the strongest impact: an extra dollar of income translates to 87 cents more for food consumption.” Specifically this results in greater consumption of vegetables, meat and fish, which provide protein and other nutrients.

This farming family in Baucau districts sells sweet potatoes at a roadside stall © Yessy Octaviana/Seeds of Life

This farming family in Baucau districts sells sweet potatoes at a roadside stall © Yessy Octaviana/Seeds of Life

Surprisingly, staple foods like maize and rice do not respond much to income increases. This suggests that “providing greater access to local markets for locally produced food is a key to improving food consumption and food diversity”.

Based on these findings, the report calls for the continued rural and agricultural development of Timor-Leste for the “good of the people of Timor-Leste, both present and future generations”.

Farmers in Viqueque shell their Utamua peanut seed in preparation for bagging © Yessy Octaviana/Seeds of Life

Farmers in Viqueque shell their Utamua peanut seed in preparation for bagging © Yessy Octaviana/Seeds of Life

Seeds of Life welcomes call for agricultural development in Timor-Leste

Seeds of Life (SoL) has welcomed the report’s recommendations, which includes improving crop productivity, strengthening local markets and establishing physical supply chains.

SoL is already working towards these aims by engaging in the following six activities:

1. Research continues into productive varieties of staple crops – maize, rice, peanut, cassava and sweet potato – to add to the 12 varieties already released by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. These varieties have 24-131% yield advantages over other varieties, helping households to increase production to meet their basic needs.

2. The MAF-varieties are creating new business opportunities for farming families, thereby generating greater demand for the inputs and increasing producer incomes. Examples include producing cassava chips from Ai-Luka varieties, selling young sweet potato leaves, and selling Utamua peanuts in the local market.

3. The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, with SoL’s assistance, has established the National Seed System for Released Varieties to provide farming families with secure access to quality seed of the improved varieties at planting time.

4. SoL is encouraging better post-harvest storage practices by supporting IFAD’s distribution of airtight steel drums to rural communities through supplying each recipient with a packet of improved maize seed and a good agricultural practices booklet.

5. SoL is working with 57 commercial seed producers across all districts to maintain consistent seed quality, link them with buyers, help establish savings and loans activities and train them in business planning – all essential for developing rural agricultural markets.

6. Sixteen agricultural shops are being established by SoL across the districts to provide farming families with greater access to quality seed of improved varieties and agricultural inputs. Such shops also give farmers another avenue to sell their surplus production.

These activities further support SoL’s goal of improved food security through increased productivity of major food crops.