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Justin Smith worked as a journalist before joining WFP in 2010. He tweets at @justin_eugene
Timor-Leste's first ever food processing plant is now turning out blended foods tailored to the nutritional needs of the poor Southeast Asian nation. The new plant, set up with crucial input from WFP, will cut the cost of distributing fortified foods, create jobs and provide a market for small farmers.
DILI – In a revamped section of a coffee plant near Dili, capital of the fledgling republic of Timor-Leste, machines are grinding up corn kernels and soy beans, and mixing in oil, sugar and a host of micronutrients.
This is Timor-Leste’s first ever food processing operation, and the sacks of corn soya blend (CSB) rolling down its conveyors have been fittingly labeled “Timor Vita”. It’s the fruit of a three-way partnership between the government, coffee exporters Timor-Global and WFP to produce locally what up until now had to be imported.
“What we are doing in Timor-Leste is an absolute first,” says WFP Country Director Joan Fleuren. “Things you take for granted elsewhere – like infrastructure and services – they just don’t exist here. It’s all new.”
Starting up a processed food facility in Timor-Leste, one of Asia’s poorest countries, was a risky venture, but Fleuren said it was the only solution to the risks WFP was already facing to get fortified food supplements to malnourished mothers and children.
“When you’re on a small island in the South Pacific, anything you import has to come a long way. That becomes problematic when what you’re importing is blended food.” According to Fleuren, the long overseas journey combined with the tropical climate in Timor-Leste and less than ideal storage conditions made for a short shelf life and an often bitter taste.
Also the oil and sugar provided to families together with the CSB didn’t always make into the mix. “Some families would use the sugar for tea or the oil to cook with, so they’d have less to mix in with the CSB. Of course, it’s still good for you if you eat it by yourself, but without oil and sugar, it’s practically tasteless. That can be a big problem if you’re trying to feed a toddler his lunch.”
A home-grown food factory
Producing CSB locally presented some daunting challenges. After a meeting with the Minister of Health, who runs the country’s mother and child nutrition programme, Fleuren and his team agreed to find a local partner who could produce CSB on the scale Timor-Leste needed.
Only one firm fitted the bill, a local coffee trader known as Timor Global. However, the processing and packaging equipment all had to be brought in from abroad, an expense underwritten by the government as a sign of its support.
Meanwhile, WFP oversaw the conversion of the coffee plant into a fortified foods factory, and securing materials that met WFP standards. That meant training factory staff and health inspectors about quality control and explaining to local farmers about the standards they’d have to meet if they wanted to sell to the factory.
Fleuren’s team also formulated the recipe for Timor Vita after conducting a series of taste tests with local residents who chose between a variety of blended foods. Nutritionist Anusara Singhkumarwong noted that people familiar with imported CSB thought the native brand tasted “fresher and sweeter”.
In addition to tasting better, Timor Vita will also save money. While the food itself costs roughly the same as the imported variety, its relative freshness will give it a longer shelf life and cut down on waste.
Over the next two months, the fortified food factory will begin turning out over 200 metric tons of Timor Vita per month, a hefty chunk of WFP’s needs there.
Fleuren said, however, that he hoped the company would eventually supply all the CSB distributed in Timor-Leste, and even begin producing different nutritious foods for the local market.