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Flavor of home-grown coffee spreading beyond East Timor

A Japanese NGO opened Letefoho Specialty Coffee Roaster, a seaside coffee shop in Dili, in June 2014.

DILI -- A small, seafront coffee shop in the East Timorese capital is doing a roaring trade in locally grown coffee. At the 13-seat cafe, customers can enjoy a wide selection of menu, along with a view of the white sandy beach. Bags of 250-gram beans, at a price of $3.5 each, are also selling well.

     Coffee was originally brought to the country by the Portuguese during colonial occupation, but despite it becoming one of the country's key export crops, until recently few places in the young Southeast Asian nation existed where people could enjoy a good cup of coffee in a relaxed atmosphere.

     All that changed in June last year, however, when the Letefoho Specialty Coffee Roaster, on the main coastal thoroughfare of Avenida de Portugal, was launched by the Peace Winds Japan nongovernmental organization. The shop is now taking on the task of promoting East Timorese coffee for both domestic and overseas markets.  

     "I have a cup of coffee here every morning while I take a walk," said a diplomat at the Japanese Embassy in Dili. Customers are made up of staff from the foreign embassies along Avenida de Portugal and locals who stop by on their way home from work. Sometimes as many as 100 people visit the cafe a day.

     In the past year it has even begun to attract foreign celebrities. Crown Prince Haakon of Norway visited the shop in February, and Princess Fadzilah Lubabul Bolkiah of Brunei stopped by in June. After enjoying an iced caffe latte, the princess asked the shop to open a branch in her country one day.

     Peace Winds began helping East Timorese coffee farmers with production and export in 2003, the year after the country became the first new sovereign state of the 21st century on gaining independence from Indonesian occupation. In 2010, the NGO launched a wholly owned business based in Dili to buy, distribute and export coffee beans. 

     In a country where there is little in the way of "cafe culture," the charity found it tough going at first. "We could not find any locals who had run a coffee shop," said Ryo Nagai, a Peace Winds representative in East Timor. They began by focusing on an aspect that made their business stand out, "For a start, we tried to offer the best service here."

     Beans sold domestically tend to be lower grade, priced at around $2 per kilogram but Peace Winds' higher-end coffee has also begun selling well in Dili's supermarkets. The business exports more than 100 tons of beans per year. In the organization's home country, they are sold at 700 yen ($5.64) to 1,300 yen for a bag of 200 grams.

     The business aims to make their beans a well-known fair-trade product, sold at a price accurately reflecting labor costs in the producing country that helps to build independent and sustainable communities. 

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