Coconut oil is good for food, beauty and empowerment - Oé-Cusse

Coconuts are widely available on the charming island of Timor-Leste, one of the world’s youngest nations that has emerged from a history of conflict to a peaceful democracy endeavoring for sustainable development. Coconuts are used for food consumption as a delicious fruit and often as a hydrating beverage. In the last few years, coconut oil has become more and more popular in the country.

Rosita Kenat saw this as a business opportunity in the domestic market of the Oé-Cusse region, an enclave in West Timor, surrounded by Indonesian territory and known as the Special Economic Zone for Social Market Economy (ZEESM). In early 2017, together with five other women, she created Mina Nu’u Lifau, a cooperative group and started working daily on coconut oil production.

For a group of women entrepreneurs, starting and developing a business in Timor-Leste is not an easy task. As a predominantly patriarchal society, the adherence of traditional women’s roles results in women earning less than men or, more likely, being unable to participate in decision-making processes relating to their economic livelihood. Women, especially in rural areas, struggle more than men to become economically independent. They are often concentrated in low-skilled, low-productivity and low or unpaid jobs with long working hours, poor working conditions and limited social protection.

In the region of Oé-Cusse, only 17.7% of women own a house, while almost 70% of men are sole owners of their homes. Moreover, 82.4% of women are employed in vulnerable employment (farm and non-farm employment) compared to 70.6% of men.

Nevertheless, Rosita and her newly formed business group quickly gained customers. But the hours of hard and intensive manual labor made the production process incredibly slow.

Everything changed for them when Rosita joined a business-camp promoted by the Oé-Cusse Business Incubator (OBI) in September 2017. OBI is a programme developed by UNDP Timor Leste together with the Regional Authority (RAEOA-ZEESM TL). It encourages small industries and promotes local businesses to foster sustainable livelihoods through access to financial services, technical training, and business incubators. OBI also aims to build the economic capacity of the Oé-Cusse region by fostering an enabling environment for business, which is exactly why Rosita thought OBI could help the Mina Nu’u Lifau group to grow and expand its business.

UNDP development-oriented policies are empowering women to rise up, challenge gender stereotypes, and gain economic autonomy. At OBI programme, an obligatory quota is set to guarantee that half of the beneficiaries are women. They are encouraged to develop business ideas, which helps them to engage actively in the competition of OBI entrepreneurs. These ideas are presented in front of a panel of judges that is also composed of at least 50% of women. In addition, the beneficiaries receive capacity building training and empowerment workshops to promote their potential as businesswomen. Since 2017, OBI supported 31 women (and 30 men) to develop their businesses.

Rosita presented her innovative business and her group was selected by OBI to be one of the six female-driven businesses that year.

After joining OBI, Rosita quickly saw the benefits. Through capacity enhancement training and the provision of new equipment, their work became smarter. They were able to achieve better quality products in less time and with less intensive work, which allowed them to improve their lives economically, psychologically and physically.

“OBI helped us with our business. We have this business to improve our livelihoods for our families, to sustain our domestic needs: it pays for school, helps us buy clothes, and we buy rice to eat” shares Rosita.

One of the most impactful changes to the Mina Nu’u Lifau group was the arrival of the grinder machine. Before they had to manually grind the coconuts to produce the coconut oil, but now a bright red machine does the hard work. While the ritual of chatting, laughing and smelling the white fruit is still a part of their daily process, they are now more carefree.

“OBI provides training and support, such as equipment and machines. Our work is easier now because we do not rely on manual work.”

The year of 2019 has been good for business. The group started partnering with local stores to sell their product in the Oé-Cusse region, making it easier to reach new costumers. They also attended an OBI workshop to learn to expand their line of products, which made them develop a line of carefully crafted and aromatic coconut soaps. The coconut soaps became an instant success, boosting the Mina Nu’u Lifau group to seek new opportunities and grow their business.

In only two years Rosita and the Mina Nu’u Lifau group became a strong symbol of the economic empowerment in the Oé-Cusse region. Not only are they earning a higher income but are also influencing the local market and creating new economic pathways for the region.

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