The road south out of Dili climbs steadily, winding back and forth with spectacular switchbacks on a paved but narrow road, one of the few that crosses Timor-Leste, ultimately reaching the country’s south coast. I am told Timor-Leste is about the size of Connecticut – a state I have traversed many times in just a couple of hours. Here, a couple of hours might get you into the middle of the country, but certainly not all the way across. Of course, Connecticut doesn’t have Timor-Leste’s mountains; at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, Mt. Ramelau towers over the country’s central highlands.
Despite the travel complications they create, it is these mountains that have put Timor-Leste on the map as one of the top coffee-producing nations in the world. The high elevation, sloping terrain, and regular rainfall make it a near-perfect coffee-growing area—the Timor hybrid coffee produces a delicious brew. As a result, coffee now accounts for 90 percent of all non-petroleum exports for this small island nation, and most of it is bought by Starbucks.
As we rose through the lush, verdant countryside, we quickly reached coffee plots right alongside the road. My guide and teacher was Bency Issacs, the senior technical advisor for USAID’s coffee and agriculture rehabilitation project, run by the U.S.-based National Cooperative Business Association. The project helps more than 23,000 farm families, about 15 percent of Timor-Leste’s population.
Up in a high mountain meadow surrounded by treeless, windswept hilltops above prime coffee production lands, we visited one of the coffee production plants run by Cooperativa Café Timor (CCT), which was started by USAID in 1994. The plant is a hive of activity during the production season in late spring (or fall, I suppose, because the seasons are reversed below the equator). Trucks arrive in the late afternoon after pre-arranged daily pick-ups from CCT farmers near and far, and the washing and de-pulping processes go on all night long with specialized machines. The next morning trucks carry the beans to a drying facility near Dili.
For 120 days between early June and the end of September, CCT employs 3,000 workers, pumping about $15,000 a day into some of the country’s most remote communities. Of these 3,000 workers, about one-third are women. CCT is the largest employer of women in the country. With its attention to quality organic production, support for farmers, respect for the environment, and compliance with international labor standards prohibiting child labor, CCT enjoys the status of “Preferred Provider” for Starbucks.
In December, the New Zealand Aid Programme contributed $3 million to support USAID’s coffee-sector rehabilitation efforts, forging a valuable partnership that will help thousands more coffee farmers improve their crops and incomes. Long-term support from USAID for coffee has been a vital springboard for Timor-Leste’s private sector. The production and export of Timor-Leste coffee has been an independent commercial success for many years, but USAID continues to help CCT’s farmers find new ways to boost their incomes, from new pruning techniques to increase coffee yields to new high-value crops, such as fruit and spices. It makes that morning cup of coffee taste even better.