Coffee was introduced into Timor Leste early in the nineteenth century by the Portuguese colonial authority in an attempt to establish a coffee export industry. By the mid-nineteenth century, coffee had overtaken sandalwood as Timor Leste’s major export; a situation that continues today. With the beginning of Indonesian rule in 1975 a new era began characterised by a monopolistic coffee export system with little investment in the sector. Yields dropped dramatically and many of the plantations established during the Portuguese era became overgrown and began to be harvested by surrounding farmers.
In 1994 the Timor Leste coffee export industry became de-regulated with the removal of the state sponsored monopoly allowing the entry of the US National Co-operative Business Association (NCBA) backed by USAID funding, as well as a variety of other buyers operating mainly through West Timor. NCBA working through the Co-operativo Café Timor (CCT), became the major actor in the coffee sector during a turbulent period both politically (the post-consultation violence in 1999 and transition to independence) and economically for the coffee sector (a period when international coffee prices fell to 30-year lows).
Coffee remains Timor Leste’s major export. The producers are typically upland subsistence farmers who harvest areas of coffee investing little effort in maintenance such as pruning, re-planting, weeding etc. For these people, coffee sales are estimated to represent 90% of their cash income. There are a wide variety of coffee buyers and exporters at present. These include small development projects focusing on small quantities from specific producer groups, ethnic Chinese traders buying mainly parchment and exporting through Indonesia, companies who have invested considerable funds and export directly from Dili and a hybrid of a development project and co-operatives. Producers either sell ‘cherry’ mainly to CCT or process into parchment which is sold to a variety of buyers. The majority of coffee is processed on-farm into parchment using the ‘dry’ process. Access to premium quality markets, Fair Trade markets, and organic markets has helped the price of Timor Leste’s coffee increase over the years.
Size: 15,006 km²
Capital City: Dili
Population: 1.296 million
Language: Portuguese, Tetun
Average farm size: Smallholders with less than 1 hectare
Bags exported annually: 104,000 bags
Growing regions and sizes: Western, Southern, Northern regions
Varieties: Catimor, Sarchimor & Timor Hybrid (aka Tim Tim or HDT)
Key Coffee Regions: Maubesse, Aifu, Ermera, Liquica, Aileu & Ainaro
Processing Methods: Fully washed
Bag Size: 60kg
Harvest Period: May – October
Shipment Period: October to December