Youth Co:Lab aims to help scale-up emerging Timorese business ideas

As the judges withdrew to decide the winners from among Timor-Leste’s 10 best and brightest youth entrepreneurs, it was clear that this – the UNDP Timor-Leste’s first ‘Youth Co:Lab’ forum – was far more than a business idea competition.

“This is not about winning, it’s about supporting each other all together,” said Jake Lassi, a finalist in the ‘National Youth Forum on Leadership, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship’ on the 5th and 6th of December. The Forum constituted Timor’s entry to the UNDP Asia-Pacific Youth Co:Lab Initiative, which now includes 20 countries.

Co-created in 2017 by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Citi Foundation, Youth Co:Lab works with governments, civil society and the private sector to promote a business environment and policies supporting young people to develop solutions for social and environmental problems in their communities.

At the award ceremony in Dili, UNDP Timor-Leste Resident Representative, Tuya Altangerel quoted former United States President Franklin Roosevelt, saying “we cannot build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

Prior to the final two-day session in Timor’s capital Dili, 25 youth businesses received three days of training on how to improve their entrepreneurial ideas for solving some of Timor’s most pressing issues.

Contestants demonstrated their ideas in front of specialist judges


Coffee, recycling, aquaponics, nutrition, sustainable tourism, and solar energy emerged among finalists’ business ideas that also could help achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through job-creation and social innovation.

The final ceremony – where nervous but brave participants presented their emerging business ideas to a panel of six judges – selected two teams to travel to the Youth Co:Lab finals in Malaysia. Runner-up and winner announcements were met with whoops, cheers and hugs of solidarity from their ‘competitors’.

The winners of the “Ideas” and “Start-ups” categories were Timor-Mi and COA Coffee respectively. Ideas were businesses still in the planning phase, while start-ups were those that were already operating on some level.

As the name implies, Timor-Mi is all about creating a nutritious local alternative to one of Timor’s most basic and popular food items – dried noodles. Their low cost and long shelf life has made imported but low-nutrition wheat noodles a staple for many Timorese.

Poor quality food is a major issue in Timor, where around 45% of children under 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition. Timor-Mi noodles include highly nutrient dense local ingredients such as Moringa leaf and pumpkin to improve health outcomes.

“It is hard for us to compete with the price of imported noodles,” said Julio Cunha, the 17 year-old creator of Timor-Mi noodles. Cunha works out of café and social enterprise Agora Food Studio and says he needs over $10,000 to build a commercial kitchen that would bring the cost of his noodles down to 50 cents per 100g packet. Imported noodles retail for around 25 cents in Timor.

Chams Weirlig's solar units are affordable to many Timorese households


Cunha also sees the benefits that local businesses can provide for other Timorese, through links to other producers. “We make more than just noodles and buy a lot of local ingredients, such as Cassava, Moringa and Sago. If we produce more we can provide a market for local farmers to sell to,” he said.

Third place in the ideas category went to Radcoll Aquaponics. Team leader Januario da Costa said he had learnt enough from merely participating in the forum to go ahead with creating a small-scale prototype aquaponics plant.

Aquaponics, which does not yet exist in Timor-Leste, produces high-quality fish and vegetables by sustainably circulating nutrients and water through fish ponds and vegetable growth beds.

“The idea started with a university design challenge which peaked my interest. I studied aquaponics for over a year and then was encouraged by a female engineering team to make the idea into a reality,” said Da Costa.

“The forum gave us three days of training in how to pitch our business. That included how to present data and graphics that will help attract investors,” he said. Da Costa is now planning to build a small prototype and approach investors such as banks and construction companies.

From the start-ups category, household electrical company Cham’s Weerlig Lda took second place with their prototype for household solar panel units. Team leader Silverio Correia said “even though we didn’t win, we made some great progress. A major businessman has given us a trial contract for next year.”

Even though it is an oil and gas exporter, Timor-Leste still produces electricity from imported diesel, costing over US$150 million per year. In remote and poor areas however, electricity can be costly and unreliable and many people still rely on burning kerosene lamps for lighting and wood for cooking. Thus, solar power presents major opportunities for improving energy and health outcomes, among other benefits, for Timorese. 

Chams Weirlig’s units are cost competitive and they hope to grow initially with medium and large-scale industry sales. “The forum gave us an opportunity to show Timorese the skills we have,” Correia said.

In Malaysia, Timor’s finalists will meet with and learn from other regional winners, with valuable opportunities to network with philanthropists, industry investors and start-up collectives among others. 

Previous Co:Lab success stories have included creating innovations like re-usable drinking water systems in Vietnam; textile up-cycling projects in the Philippines; and eco-farming in Vanuatu. 

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