Building Timor-Leste

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Batako Bulls Eye. Real Private Sector Development/Conflict Prevention.

Well there is no shortage of debate and criticism about how things are going in Timor-Leste when it comes to economic growth.

  1. The Government fronts up some very impressive economic growth numbers.
  2. The Opposition slams them for being articial and or Dili centric.
  3. Lao Hamutuk says that its all flirting dangerously close to Dutch disease.

I do not feel equipped to get into the debate, but I did see something recently that gave me alot of hope for the future.  While alot of foreigners bimble around Dili attending meetings and presenting power points on the economy the last I heard the economy is where the bucks and people are, or where the people looking for the bucks are.  But I should be careful now, I might slip into nasty caustic comments about my fellow “malae” in Timor-Leste.

In early August I drove from Dili to Lautem and back over a few days and it offered a microscopic look at what is going on, or not going on in the mountains of Timor-Leste.  I have not spent as much time outside of Dili as I used to back in the 2000-2004 period but its always the way to see the real Timor-Leste beyond the gleaming 4x4s (and now Hummers), the luke warm cappuccinos in places run by people who do not drink the stuff, and of course the painful parade of advisers who just cannot seem to get it right year in and year out.  Oops, I was one of them once….

Certainly, when one leaves Dili the traffic eases from a Jakarta style “macet” traffic jam, to wide open roads.  Its startling how little traffic there is beyond Fatu Ahi, and thus perhaps economic activity. Between Baucau and Dili I counted perhaps 15 vehicles and between Baucau and Com then Los Palos town a mere handful. I was of course nearly hit on two occasions by oncoming UNMIT UNPOL vehicles. I did encounter a full on bus tour of Portuguese senior citizens in Com though!  The old man that I met near Iralalaro who hailed from Mehara was still very poor, and was beaming with a smile when gave him just a few kreteks.

Mehara Man..

However, that gloomy viewpoint aside I saw something which I have never seen in the 10 years I have been driving around the hills – batako presses. For those of you who do not know what batako is its the primary building material for constructing walls in Timor-Leste, and for that matter Indonesia.  They are essentially large bricks in varied sizes and shapes.

Usually people make them from sand, cement, and water by hand with molds.  Its hot, backbreaking work.  Have a look here to get an idea of what they look like.  On this journey, in both Vemasse and Com, I saw my first district based batako presses.  These presses enable people to make literally a “sh&^pile” of the things at better quality and very quickly.  Maybe there were some in other places before, but its still remarkable.

I had heard about the Vemasse one – and was on the look out for it.  The owner, Timor-Leste’s largest Timorese employer outside of the Government had boasted about it to me a month earlier.  But the Lautem one was a complete surprise.

Hard at work - on a Com, Lautem Sunday morning no less!

Notice the presses can do 4-6 batako at a time - in a fraction of the time a man can do it - and much better!

Com, Subdistrict - Lautem. Some serious gear - by Timorese standards this is almost "heavy" industry. Its great to see.

These are not cheap bits of gear.  They are costly.  In the case of the Lautem guys they told me that they had gone to Surabaya to buy the kit.  Its a very serious investment.  They also explained that they had calculated how many batako were being bought in their area on a monthly basis and figured they could turn a monthly profit and pay of the cost within a couple of years.

Clearly business people in Lautem and Baucau are gearing up to service the building industry in the mountains. Its impressive and its good news. I would be very interested if readers could send in other examples elsewhere in the country.

No doubt we have to get these guys on the supplier directory on the new improved beta version of the Timor-Leste Business Portal pronto.  With all the building going on in Dili I suppose they could sell batako to Dili at a cheaper price than what it goes for right now.  Competition – lo and behold competition!  Will this mean better batako at a better price?  I hope we can report on their progress in a year’s time.

Despite the bickering in Dili people in the mountains are seemingly getting on with it.

Its business after all, and not politics.

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1 Comment

  1. Edward Rees says:

    I should learn to use the spell checker

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