Agricultural Innovations for Communities in Timor-Leste

October 16, 2018

As part of our efforts to support and encourage young Australians in study, careers and volunteering in international agricultural research, the Crawford Fund State Committees proudly support our International Agricultural Student Awards. The 2018 recipients of these Awards were announced in May, and we look forward to sharing the journey of these 22 dynamic Australian tertiary students as they gain international agricultural research experience and expertise.

Throughout 2018 and the early part of 2019, the successful Award recipients will travel to their host countries to research and explore their chosen topic areas. You can follow their progress here on the Crawford Fund website and read more about their findings, learnings and any challenges they encounter. 

We have previously presented the experience of University of West Australia student, Christian Berger, and Queensland University of Technology PhD candidate, Thomas Noble. Now, thanks to The Crawford Fund Victoria Committee, we deliver this summary of University of Melbourne student, Kimberly Pellosis’ journey to Timor-Leste. Like Christian and Thomas, Kimberly was connected to an ACIAR project.

Kimberly (centre) looking at Maubisse bean trials with Armindo Moises and Robert Williams

When I started studying agriculture and environmental science at university, never in a million years would I have thought that it would provide me with the opportunity to meet the most amazing and inspiring people, while travelling to the most distant and surreal destinations, working on the most interesting and fulfilling research projects. I’ve been incredulously fortunate to be able to go to Timor-Leste and work with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and Agricultural Innovations for Communities (AI-Com) group to support intensified and sustainable farming systems.

Agricultural research and development assistance projects in overseas countries were something that I hoped to gain experience in and contribute towards, coming from a developing country myself. Giving back to the global community and applying what I’ve learned at university to initiatives that would make a world of difference to smallholder farmers was something that I was drawn towards, as I felt quite obligated, and privileged to grow up and obtain an education in a country as flourishing and prosperous as Australia.

Timor-Leste depends on its agricultural sector for financial and economic security. The nation’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries estimates that 80 per cent of the population consists of local, smallholder farmers that depend on annual crop yields for survival, and according to ACIAR data, two-thirds of its 1.17 million population live on less than US$2 a day.

The ACIAR Agricultural Innovations for Communities for intensified and sustainable farming systems in Timor-Leste (AI-Com) project was the perfect match to my background and interests. AI-Com is a collaborative model research organisation determined to improve agricultural productivity and profitability to communities in Timor-Leste – reaching up to approximately 5000 farming families, introducing economic resilience to the local farming economy.

After my arrival, Robert Williams, Technical Director for AI-Com, fellow AI-Com researcher Luis de Almeida, and I embarked on the famous ‘South Coast Tour’, which involved visiting experimental research plots and farming enterprises in Maubisse, Same, Suai, Betano, Natarbora and Viqueque.

Throughout the tour, we consulted with various growers, and learned about the ways in which adaptive research could improve agricultural productivity within the local area.

Examples of the research we visited and advised on include:

  • In mountainous Maubisse, Same and Suai, various varieties of mung beans were being trialled to assess which variety could thrive in the south coast of Timor-Leste, where planting time could potentially support the growth and yield of the crop.
Evaluating Suai Beans
  • At the Betano Research Station, there were multiple agronomic trials, from assessing variations in timing for intercropping maize and red beans, and evaluating pigeon pea and cowpea varieties, to randomised split plots for different varieties of red bean.
  • At the Natarbora Agricultural Technical School, we caught up with students as they were watering their plots, consisting of intercropping trials for maize and beans to investigate and compare cropping yields.
  • At a Sandalwood Plantation, teachers from the Natarbora Agricultural High School were testing the ideal technique and duration for seed soaking, and whether different input factors can significantly affect the growth rate of the plant.
  • We met up students from the University of Timor-Leste, as they collected social research data through in-depth one-on-one interviews with families aimed at providing a great ‘snapshot’ of families around the neighbouring areas of Natarbora.
Team photo with University of Timor-Leste students.
  • In Viqueque, we visited rice farms that introduced biochar and broadcasting into their cropping rotation. Given that the soil in Timor-Leste is generally quite deficient, biochar can be an economically efficient and sustainable input opportunity for farmers to increase their agricultural productivity and yield.
Kimberly (centre) with the AI-Com Team out in the Rice Fields.
  • Back in the capital, Dili, we went through an Agricultural Production Systems Simulator (APSIM) training course and tried to model and predict yields for various crops based on existing weather data, and by modifying various rates and factors such as soil type, sowing rate, fertiliser rate and surface organic matter.

As Asia’s newest nation, Timor-Leste is a country determined to rebuild itself from the ground up. Timor-Leste presents a wonderful opportunity for students, researchers and scientists to apply theory into practice, and be sure that efforts would have immediate positive impacts to growers and their standard of living.

I’ve fallen in love with the country, and the positivity, warmness and kindness of its people. As I embark on my plane and leave this enchanted island, and on to my next journey, I leave with a heightened sense of appreciation and awe towards agriculture for development, and Australia’s engagement in international agricultural research and development. I thank the Crawford Fund for making all this possible.