Home Business The young entrepreneurs helping to rebuild East Timor

The young entrepreneurs helping to rebuild East Timor

Cesar Gaio is a growing phenomenon - an entrepreneur from East Timor. Image Copyright: Cameron Clarke

Dili, East Timor, February 11, 2016: Cesar Gaio loves cooking in the open air. He hovers over a gas stove next to the winding road that edges the sea in Dili, East Timor, preparing wraps filled with purple sweet potato and fresh fish.

“I love people to see me cooking,” he says. “Like Jamie Oliver.”

Mr Gaio carts a gas stove around the city in the back of his pick-up truck, setting up shop wherever he likes.

Both Dilicious Timor, the mobile kitchen he started in February last year using his savings and small investments from two friends, and the small restaurant of the same name that he opened six months later, serve local Timorese cuisine made from fresh produce.

This is a rarity in a country that imports more than half of its food, a situation that 32-year-old Mr Gaio wants to help change.

Dilicious Timor kitchenImage copyrightCameron Clarke
Image captionCesar Gaio describes his business as a mobile food kitchen, rather than a food truck, because he still needs to buy a suitable vehicle
DiliciousTimorImage copyrightCameron Clarke
Image captionFresh cooking is rare in East Timor, which imports more than half of its food

He is one of a growing number of young, savvy Timorese entrepreneurs starting small businesses with an eye to lifting Timor into a more prosperous era. They hire local staff and use local products in the hope of contributing to the growth of their new country.

East Timor, or Timor-Leste, became independent in 2002 after centuries of Portuguese rule and a 25-year occupation by neighbouring Indonesia. About 200,000 people are thought to have died during Indonesian rule, a staggering number for a population of less than one million at the time.

Despite continuing problems with infrastructure and poverty, Timorese people are still hopeful about the future. Timor is so new that anything seems possible.

Gally AraujoImage copyrightCameron Clarke
Image captionGally Soares Araújo says he has seen a growing interest in local entrepreneurship around Timor

Like Mr Gaio, Gally Soares Araujo has taken a chance. He left his well-paid government job last year and used his savings to open Kaffe U’ut, a small, red brick cafe in central Dili, which sells flat whites, lattes and carrot cakes, mainly to ex-pats or foreign visitors.

“East Timor has a great potential for tourism and coffee industry. But right now the coffee industry is still underdeveloped.

“We believed that we should start doing something,” says 29-year-old Mr Araujo.

Gally AraujoImage copyrightCameron Clarke
Image captionGally Soares Araújo says he is a coffee addict

Mr Araujo, who was educated in Portugal and describes himself as a coffee addict, says his cafe is the only locally owned one in East Timor. All its products are made in the country, and it employs local staff.

“In a broader perspective, we believe that we can be part of the change of East Timor,” he says.

He says he has seen a growing interest in local entrepreneurship around Timor since the United Nations ended its peacekeeping mission and left the country in 2012.

“We knew we would have to start building the country without help,” he says.

Changing attitudes

There are also burgeoning creative enterprises in Dili.

RuiCarvalho sewingImage copyrightCameron Clarke
Image captionRui Collections uses widows, school drop-outs and transgender youth to help make its clothes

Rui Carvalho used his savings and family land to start Rui Collections, a made-to-order fashion boutique, in 2009. He sources tais, a traditional, woven cotton cloth, from rural women to make modern clothing, shoes and handbags.

Mr Carvalho says many Timorese people reserve tais for funerals. But the 42-year-old wants to help see tais recognised around the world as the art of East Timor.

“When I see women in a rural area, they don’t know how to read, they don’t know how to count, but they know how to make one piece of tais. It’s very hard to do.

“I’m very proud of it and I want to celebrate it,” he says.

RuiCarvalhoImage copyrightCameron Clarke
Image captionRui Carvalho wants to help see tais recognised worldwide as the art of East Timor

He has more than a dozen employees and says he hires widows, school drop-outs and transgender youth.

This kind of entrepreneurship is rare in East Timor, where up to 80% of people live off the land.

Fewer than 200,000 people – in a country of 1.1 million – have formal jobs or employ others.

Filipe Alfaiate who runs Empreza Di’ak, an organisation that has spent the past five years trying to encourage entrepreneurship as a form of social change, says that East Timor has struggled to develop a market economy of its own because decades of turmoil have made people risk averse.

“People have been through a lot. They prefer what they know – a steady job and fixed payment,” he says.

But he says he is now seeing a change in attitudes toward entrepreneurship, especially among young people.

“You have half of the population less than 30 years old. There are not enough jobs for everyone. So we are probably getting new kids who are more entrepreneurial. They’re more willing to take risks.”

Nonetheless, he says challenges for budding small business owners are still enormous, due partly to the still poor infrastructure, such as the lack of good roads and unreliable electricity, but also because of attitudes.

Dili sceneImage copyrightCameron Clarke
Image captionEast Timor’s coastal city Dili is home to a growing number of start-ups

Timor has yet to make the “huge cultural shift” from a subsistence economy – where people grow food but don’t sell it – to a market economy, he says.

“The private sector was developed in Timor basically to feed the United Nations.

“They import stuff and they sell it. That’s what they do. That is very different from dealing with local producers,” Mr Alfaiate says.

He says any local brave enough to start a small business must be special – or have money.

“There are so many barriers to the market. It is really difficult for someone to succeed as an entrepreneur. You need to have a mix of huge talent, access to finance and a lot of support.”

Cesar GaioImage copyrightCameron Clarke
Image captionDilicious Timor founder Cesar Gaio says he wants to help his country grow

Despite the obstacles, Florencio Sanches, the head of the government office that registers new businesses, says the number of young entrepreneurs, has increased, helped by streamlined registration practices which have made it easier for Timorese people to get started.

He says his office has registered 11,000 new businesses in the last three years, most of which are owned by people under 30. It used to take up to five years to register 5,000.

But Mr Sanches says it is still too difficult to get access to credit in East Timor. He thinks the government should develop policies that encourage banks to loan money to individuals.

“The government itself cannot do it all. We need the participation from the private sector,” he says.

Dilicious Timor owner Mr Gaio is certainly willing.

“We really look forward to the future. Making a change,” he says.