"We had our first volunteer, Mana Tanya, in April 2011. She worked closely with me to secure the funding and support of Caritas NZ which has been so important for HAFOTI’s development.

This year we had a very proud moment when we sent our first ever export of Virgin Coconut Oil to Australia. I was able to visit Australia with Maun Kim our seventh VSA volunteer to see the markets and learn about export.”

Mana Dortia Kese left Photo Helen Reynolds

Mana Dortia Kese (left). Photo: Helen Reynolds

That’s Mana Dortia Kese, the Director of Timor Leste’s HAFOTI collective reflecting on how VSA and HAFOTI have worked in partnership for eight years. Over this time HAFOTI has gone from strength to strength as local products have been turned into thriving businesses, which are in turn now becoming exporters.

But the outlook wasn’t always so good with the collective foundering when Mana Dortia Kese joined in 2010. “At that time HAFOTI was not doing so well and my job was to rebuild it. I’m pleased to say we are now a strong organisation with 315 members in 23 groups operating in seven of the 13 Timor–Leste municipalities.”

VSA volunteers have worked with Mana Dortia, and the many other women of HAFOTI to develop products including coconut oil, body scrubs, soymilk, black rice, and banana chips. Assignments have ranged from technical production advice to helping developing packaging, business management, marketing, and now with seventh volunteer Kim Willoughby they are developing an export market.

Kim says it’s essential to tell the Timor-Leste story. “The  traditional way HAFOTI makes coconut oil produces a very high quality product. It can’t compete on price with the cheap mass produced sun dried copra product from other countries, but it can stand alone as a high quality commodity and that together with the story of where it has come from offers a great marketing opportunity.”

That’s not lost on Mana Dortia- she has just spent three weeks in Australia schooling up on the market opportunities that much larger nation offers including a workshop with other women from Asia  and the Pacific doing similar work. “We visited cities including Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane and looked at the products being sold, and the kind of packaging being used, and we also learned more about marketing and how to fill in the export documents.”

One of the opportunities she is taking back to develop is sun dried pineapple- which sells for $95/kg in Australia. It’s high value products like this the collective needs to focus on for export as the cost of shipping from Timor-Leste is incredibly expensive. A container can cost ten times as much to ship from Timor- Leste to Australia as it does from larger, more established ports.

HAFOTI is a contraction of Hamahon Feto Timor – or “Umbrella organisation for Timorese women”. It’s a name that is incredibly appropriate as the economic development offered to its 315 members has translated  into greater financial independence. In fact, with the creation of a savings and loan scheme, collective members are now able to safely save – not easy in a cash economy with no banks.

HAFOTI Members at Aileu Centre

HAFOTI Members at Aileu Centre. Photo: Helen Reynolds