Small enterprises offer a creative twist on traditional products

Small enterprises offer creative twist on traditional products

Tais weavings, belak medallions, morten necklaces and other traditional products from around Timor-Leste on display at the forum
Tais weavings, belak medallions, morten necklaces and other traditional products from around Timor-Leste on display at the forum. Photo Sandra Magno/UNDP TL

Dili – Fisherman Mariano da Cruz stands amongst a vibrant crowd of entrepreneurs in Dili Convention Centre.

“People keep asking us for more seaweed sweets, but we have totally run out,” he says with a smile. (Lee versaun Tetum iha ne'e)

It’s another hot day in Dili and at a forum, set up in March 2012 to support income for poor households, groups of enthusiastic small business owners, cooperatives and entrepreneurs gather in the shade to exchange stories. 


  • In March 2012, 13 cooperatives and 15 micro, small and medium sized enterprises shared their stories with Timor-Leste’s Prime Minister and other guests during a two-day forum on inclusive growth.
  • Artisans and producers from districts including Los Palos and Baucau exhibited products including soya milk, dolls and coffee.

“We knew that seaweed tasted good, so we started to think about other ways to eat seaweed and came up with the idea of sweets,” explains Mariano. “Now my wife is part of the team that makes seaweed sweets and I go out with the others to collect it.”

What started as a simple idea conceived on the small Island of Atauro, north of Dili, grew into a cooperative of 220 islanders. They have been able to expand fishing and seaweed operations with a small business grant from the government, buying two extra boats and equipment with which to produce the red, yellow and green confectionary now displayed at the Forum for Inclusive Growth in Dili’s Convention Centre.

One hundred men and women from districts including Los Palos and Baucau are also enthusiastically exhibiting products at the forum, including soya milk, dolls and coffee.

Together these participants make up 13 cooperatives and 15 micro, small and medium-sized enterprises, selected to share their success stories with the Prime Minister and 300 other guests from government, private sector, Brazil, Philippines, Malaysia, Japan and Indonesia.

“My cooperative had a lot of concerns about finance and training, but the past two days helped me realize that people from other districts have the same problems,” says Mariano. “There’s a lot to overcome but this event is helping us to think more creatively.” 

The Atauro Island Cooperative are not the only ones adding some imaginative flavor to traditional products.

Energetic fashion designer Rui Carvalho and his assistant are busy showing off their latest collection of clothes and accessories inspired by the use of traditional Timorese textiles known as tais.

Stylish leather shoes, belts and clothing are spiced up with a splash of colour from the tais, which has been sewn along a hem line or across the toe of a shoe.

“It’s been great to showcase our collection here,” says Rui. “I am building my network and have learned that if I work directly with producers in the districts I can get lower prices and it’s good for them too.”

Mother of three, Elda Ferreira de Oliveira from Dili also has a stand in the exhibition centre.

“For me it was an experiment,” she says. “An NGO suggested that I could make bags out of plastic, but I had to try all different kinds of plastic before I found what worked’.

Elda holds up the funky red and yellow hand bags, decorated with logos from coffee cartons and detergent packets.

Also invited to the forum is Joselina Urmeneta, from the Philippines. In the Philippines, a women’s cooperative is producing bags, house decor and costume jewelry out of plastic materials called doy packs which are normally discarded as rubbish.

“There is money in trash” she says, explaining that the bags are exported to countries including the USA and Canada.

One week after the forum, Mariano’s cooperative have started to restock their seaweed supply.

“We’ve already had SMS messages from people telling us that they are interested in the products we bought to the forum,” he says. “We have come a long way and are very committed, but like many other enterprises we still need all the support we can get to help us succeed and plan for the future.”

UNDP Around the world

You are at UNDP Timor-Leste 
Go to UNDP Global