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In coffee, East Timor finds a different black gold

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 brews, along with a view of the white sandy beach. Beans in 250-gram bags, priced at $3.50 each, also sell well.

     Coffee was brought to East Timor by the Portuguese during the colonial period. But while it is an important export crop, until recently there were few places in the young Southeast Asian nation where people could savor a good cup of coffee in a relaxed atmosphere.

     All that changed in June of last year, however, when Letefoho Specialty Coffee Roaster opened on Dili's main coastal thoroughfare, Avenida de Portugal. The shop, operated by the nongovernmental organization Peace Winds Japan, promotes East Timorese coffee in the domestic market and overseas.  

     "I have a cup of coffee here every morning on my walk," said a diplomat at the Japanese Embassy in Dili. Most of the customers are staff from the foreign embassies that line Avenida de Portugal, and locals who stop by on their way home from work. Sometimes the shop pulls in 100 customers a day.

     In the past year it has even begun attracting 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.

GETTING A PUSH  Peace Winds began helping East Timorese coffee farmers with production and export in 2003, the year after the country gained its independence from Indonesia, which seized the eastern half of the island in 1975. In 2010, the NGO set up 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 a 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 how to make the business stand out. "For a start, we tried to offer the best service here," said Nagai.

     Beans sold domestically tend to be lower grade, and priced around $2 a 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 a year. Back in Japan a 200-gram bag of beans sells for 700 yen to 1,300 yen ($5.70 to $10.58).

     Peace Winds markets the coffee as a fair trade product that sells at a price that accurately reflects labor costs in East Timor and allows growers to build sustainable communities.

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