Close cooperation with local authorities helped the Accelerator Lab team identify the most vulnerbale households. Photo: Alex Ray/UNDP

When the first case of Covid-19 was recorded in Timor Leste in march 2020, restrictions such as the suspension of nonessential public activities, schooling, public gatherings, and public transport, and border closures were implemented under a state of emergency.

Socio-economic conditions in Timor Leste mean most people live in small houses with large families, often have limited access to fresh water, and need to gather for essential needs such as firewood for cooking and or tending to their gardens.

Even in the capital Dili, most need to interact with others (for example vendors, construction workers, small business owners, and their staff) on a daily basis, making human interaction unavoidable.

Taxi drivers, informal economy workers, farmers, orphans, widows, the elderly, and disabled were among those who could no longer access markets or engage in subsistence wage work and found themselves cut off from their only means of income.

Erratic climatic conditions also spoiled early dry season crops in many municipalities, meaning rural communities were severely impacted by a lack of income and food. According to a 2019 study, about 36% of the Timorese population faced moderate and severe chronic food insecurity at the time of the study.

Recognising the serious threats to food security looming from worsening circumstances in 2020, in early July the Government of Japan generously donated $1 million via the Asian Development Bank to support food distribution in five municipalities across Timor Leste.

Given its ability to rapidly mobilise among local communities and its extensive networks across a range of public and private sector actors, UNDP was trusted by the Government of Timor-Leste to support this project.

Timor Leste has seen large-scale food distribution at different stages in its history. However previous initiatives have relied heavily on low-nutrient imported staple crops, which saw vast overseas spending.

In order to meet the goal of creating as many advantages for communities as possible from the project, the UNDP, through its Accelerator Lab team, turned to circular economy principles — whereby value chains circulate income and productive activity in a mutually reinforcing cycle.

In practical application in this project locally produced food is procured from farmers and distributed to vulnerable households suffering from food insecurity in nearby municipalities.  This would ensure that the $1 million circulated in the domestic economy, strengthened local value chains, and contributed to a lesser environmental impact.

The goal of completing distribution to 25,000 people (including women’s shelters, safe houses, and orphanages) in Timor Leste’s most vulnerable communities by the end of 2020 required intensive research into food production and pricing data across Timor Leste.

Timor Leste does not regularly produce enough staple crops to sustain itself and procuring large amounts of food at once has the potential to impact short-term food pricing. To avoid this the UNDP worked closely with agricultural support initiatives such as  TOMAK and AVANSA, as well as  the Secretary of State for Cooperatives (SECOOP) and FONGTIL.

Exactly who was to receive food support required agreeing upon vulnerability criteria, which was then used to create a data collection template. Identifying the recipients was initially difficult due to a lack of demographic data and access to remote communities.

However, detailed guidance for municipal authorities on the criteria helped assure the accuracy of the process. In this case, vulnerability was determined by household rather than the individual level, to reflect social conditions and avoid overlap.

The process of data collection ultimately relied on the most grassroots level of state authority – the Xefe Aldeia – who had the most access to each community and was responsible for collecting household data. The results were then cross-checked with community-based organisations and faith-based organisation for accuracy. 

The government-supported Loja dos Agricultores which is supplied by farmer’s cooperatives was a crucial link in the procurement process for staple crops and was identified as the best placed to procure the large quantities of rice, corn, and beans included in the food baskets.

Timor’s tropical climate and minimal food distribution networks meant that storage and logistics for distributing fresh fruits and vegetables were also a challenge. This became an opportunity to directly support local farmers and communities however, with direct procurement of fruit and vegetables from farmers close to vulnerable communities supplementing the dry goods.

In total each basket contains: 15kg of rice, 5kg of ground maize, 5kg of assorted legumes, four types of long-shelf-life vegetables, fruits, and salt.

The food distribution effort has been significantly assisted by local authorities and scout groups – over 40 of whom have helped distribute food in Dili and Baucau.

While this experiment in circular economic activity is currently limited to the food supply chain, it has the potential to be expanded to strengthen the entire food ecosystem and make it locally sustainable.

In future this may include technical to support to farmers to increase production; better rural-urban linkages for production and markets; collection centres for producing compost from organic waste in urban centres; youth-led open source technology to enable farmers to access information about inputs or advice and from agricultural specialist services; and green packaging processes using locally produced baskets or bags.  

Crucially, these are all job-creating phases of a circular economy and add to the model’s promise for Timor Leste. The initiative has also raised awareness nationwide around the nutritional value of local foods and the importance of a balanced diet for both immune and general health.

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