Project final report

Agricultural innovations for communities for intensified and sustainable farming systems in Timor-Leste (AI-Com) - Final Report

Date released
09 May 2023
Publication Code

William Erskine, Rob Williams, and Tony Page with MAF and UNTL colleagues


The AI-Com project aimed to improve agricultural productivity and profitability in pilot communities by a) addressing technical and social impediments to annual crop intensification and b) establishing fodder tree legumes and sandalwood as a sustainable income source and land management practice.

The AI-Com project addressed 2 broad avenues of research: 1) cropping intensification to produce legumes and grain for an emerging stock and food processing industry, and 2) the production of selected non-timber tree products (fodder from tree legumes and their companion sandalwood) to diversify farm incomes. We also researched the social context upon which the uptake of such innovations depends.

The project was implemented by The University of Western Australia (UWA) with the University of the Sunshine Coast as the key Australian partner on agroforestry. In-country the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAF) and the National University of Timor Lorosae (UNTL) were the major research partners. The NGO World Vision played a development role in the project.

Soil and plant nutrition was a thrust of the project, which identified in a fertiliser survey that, while fertiliser use (organic and inorganic) for cropping is low overall in Timor-Leste, barriers to increased use are surmountable. The residual impact of inorganic fertiliser to rice was found neutral or positive, NOT Negative.

Rice-husk biochar almost universally increased crop yields in Timorese soils. Biochar can be combined with chemical fertilisers and cow manure to benefit from the additive effect, and sometimes the synergistic effect of the combination. Biochar is economic to make and be sold for horticulture production, and sweet potato production. A diverse range of soils exhibited a positive response in peanut yield to biochar, SP36 and Zn. Fortified biochar (Biochar Plus) increases the benefit, and therefore reduces the recommended dose of biochar use in Timor-Leste.

Regarding cropping, a survey emphasised the value of the low-labour mungbean system to households through increased income, decreased women’s labour and increased soil fertility.

Following an evaluation of legume options, promising lines of common bean, cowpea and winged bean were identified for varietal release which now require seed multiplication.

The project identified red rice as an alternative crop to white rice to plant on spring-fed irrigated land while farmers purchase imported lower-value white rice.

Common beans, onions and carrots are traditionally grown in Timor-Leste in areas above 1000 m above sea level. The project showed that these crops can be profitably produced in the lowlands during the cooler dry season of April to October.
Aflatoxin was found in maize and peanut farm samples and in the blood of women and children, but the consumption of aflatoxin contaminated grain is not considered a causative factor in the current level of malnutrition and stunting affecting Timor-Leste children.

Regarding sandalwood and their forage tree legume (FTL) hosts, The project clearly demonstrated that many households are acutely aware of the high value and benefits derived from sandalwood and expressed strong interest in planting the species for income generation. Improved forestry extension can address many of the respondent-identified risks which were biophysical (lack of water, pests, livestock, and fire destruction). Legal marketing of planted sandalwood, which is currently prohibited, can help growers maximise benefits from their investments and provide a market signal to stimulate wider planting of sandalwood among smallholders. The main constraints found for diversifying into sandalwood growing included limited access to labour, germplasm, markets and agricultural extension services/knowledge exchange systems. Household adoption of sandalwood production as an alternative livelihood strategy, requires confidence that it can be commercially viable over the life of the crop. In a financial analysis comparison of three modelled production systems, combining sandalwood production with FTL and cattle production was the most profitable of the assessed scenario’s and compatible with existing production systems in Timor-Leste.

Through a systematic study of heartwood formation and oil quality in sandalwood, the sampled trees had consistently high oil quality, within or exceeding the international standard for S. album. But the study also found only modest levels of heartwood and oil yield. Further research is required to understand the factors that influence variation in heartwood and oil development to optimise production and inform domestication.

Insights from the project that are likely to lead to substantial benefits are:

  1. No negative effects of fertiliser were observed, and farmer are willing to use fertiliser if they are confident of benefit.
  2. Biochar input increases productivity in horticulture and its manufacture is a good basis for economic activity.
  3. Many soils seem responsive to addition of P and Zn.
  4. Low labour mungbean saves time and increases profit.
  5. Common bean and winged bean lines have been identified for varietal release for crop intensification.
  6. Use of quality topsoil and GA3 improves sandalwood seedling performance.
  7. Sandalwood in conjunction with fodder tree legumes is a viable option for farmers.

There has been early adoption of some of the project goods, with hundreds of hectares of low labour mungbean being planted, and about an extra 100,000 more sandalwood seedlings being prepared each year than would have been possible without the improved nursery practices.

Several of the insights support greater nutrition-sensitive food system development, increasing the availability of legume grain (low-labour mungbean, varietal selection of common and winged bean), increased vegetable production through use of biochar, and contributions to livestock production through leguminous fodder trees as sandalwood hosts.

Perhaps the greatest legacy from the project will be through project participants having become better researchers, more able to identify suitable innovations, rigorously assess them, and provide unbiased authoritative guidance to interested parties. Many project participants in AI-Com (and SoL earlier) nurtured the transformation of innovation ideas to adoption by farming families, through careful testing on station and farms. This success further strengthens the argument for support of research within the participating institutions. Capacity building has not been restricted to project participants and was apparent within others with connection to UNTL and MAF, such as extension personnel and students. Australian participants also gained a wealth of experience and new insights.

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