A tough day in the office? Microfinance at an inspirational organisation

Alice Reeves – Timor-Leste

East Timor, Timor-Leste, Timor-Lorosaé…

Literal meaning is important here, and names are not chosen frivolously.  Leste means ‘east’ in Portuguese.  In the local language, Tetum, Lorosaé means ‘east’ – literally ‘sunrise’.  For those of you familiar with Bahasa, the main language of Indonesia, the word Timor can be translated as, well, ‘east’.

Just keep heading towards the rising sun, one day you will eventually arrive at the shores of this rocky, dusty, mountainous island just off the northern coast of Australia, at the very tail end of the Indonesian archipelago.  It’s definitely a long way east.

It may seem a sleepy backwater, a long way from Asia’s bustling metropolises but this tiny country packs a unexpected punch.  A Portuguese colony for four centuries, then Indonesia’s 27th province,  Timor-Leste finally shook off its colonial history and embraced independence a little over a decade ago.

The first ten years of existence have not been the smoothest. Widespread civil unrest and violence marred the second half of the last decade, but now – with much persistence – Timor Leste is on the eve of taking the next step as a politically stable independent state: as of the end of this year many UN troops and police will be heading home.

Reaching this level of political and economic stability is a big achievement for this young nation, but for the million or so Timorese making a living can still present multiple challenges.  This island is a true pristine wilderness.  It lacks (or maybe it is blessed – who are we to argue?) with virtually no industry, no pollution but also little infrastucture or other fundamental buildling blocks supporting a strong economy and job creation.

Here is where one of Kiva’s newest partners, Tuba Rei Metin (TRM) comes in.  TRM is a traditional microfinance institution that provides loans of anywhere between fifty to several thousand dollars to enterprising women looking to set up a small business, or agricultural ventures.

A name devised after many weeks of thought and countless cups of local-brew coffee, TRM means “stand firmly on the earth” – and in keeping with the significance of words in this tiny state,  this is no exaggeration.  TRM has weathered many more storms than most organisations could ever conceive of.

During the civil war many Timorese were evacuated or fled to refugee camps.  Still more lost their livelihoods and posessions in their entirety.  For eleven of the thirteen Timorese microfinance institutions this proved an insurmountable challenge, and in the face of debt and the rush of humanity escaping to the safety of Australia, one by one they folded.

In defiance of the municipal unrest, TRM continued to serve its clients, braving travel around the island to camps, the remote hills or the ever-present dangers of the city – no matter what the individual circumstances of their clients.  Step by step, dollar by dollar, this commitment paid off and today TRM is one of only two microfinance organisations remaining in Timor-Leste. Its history is a source of pride.

TRM lends almost exclusively to women, who diligently provide the economic backbone of the country.  Be it around town or travelling the mountainous hinterland – you will see women running small kiosks, manning road-side food stalls, or gathering tall grasses from which to weave baskets, mats or roofs, all of which are sold by the roadside.

So far only a tiny proportion of the community has access to the loans offered by TRM, but through the partnership with Kiva the objective is to expand this step by step – reaching ever more women who can usefully use the finance on offer to better their lives, and those of their families.

So it finally falls to me – as the unbelievably fortunate Kiva Fellow to have landed on this remote glittering isle – to welcome TRM into the Kiva family.  So far it has demonstrated a remarkable tenacity serving one of the poorest populations on earth…long may that continue!

Alice Reeves is a Kiva Fellow working in Dili, Timor-Leste


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