By Michael Campbell

We have all heard about the public-private partnerships (PPP) when it comes to governments building infrastructure like toll roads, but does it have a place in the future of rural development?  

How compatible are rural development and private companies?

Often at times, the perception is that large multi-national companies are operating solely to make big profits to line the pockets of the rich investors.  But is this truly the case?

I believe that for long-term sustainable rural development to occur, integration with private companies is essential.  The pool of Government funded aid and international research funds is ever declining. We need to think of innovative ways of capturing the private dollar to leverage the government funds for larger impacts.

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Trukai rainfed rice pilot at Umi. Trukai collaborate with local landholders and assist in growing the rice, rather than buying the land

Private companies can provide access to supply chains and markets and capital that are not available to the smallholder otherwise.  As an example consider the smallholder oil palm producers, without the large private companies having milling, refining and marketing divisions their fresh fruit bunches would be worthless.

Private companies now all live by the mantra of Corporate Social Responsibility, the private companies often have the loudest voices when it comes to topics such as climate change and governments acting responsibly.  I refer you to the recent address by the head of OLAM at the Global Food Forum in Sydney.

In the past rural development was probably perceived as a government responsibility, our aid money at work in developing countries.  There might have even been a perceived conflict between public and private benefits, but this has changed dramatically now. Private companies clearly value social stability, it means that they can operate in a safe environment.

So how do we as researchers for international development tap into this private company network?

We need to be working with these companies from early on in project development.  If we can get a milk processor on board early in the life a dairy development project, then they can provide the “pull through” needed for smallholder farmers to change practices.  

We need to provide the private companies with a good story to tell, they want their customers to know that they are acting responsibly and we can help them with that.  

We can develop true value chains and assist the private company in their dealings with smallholders and demonstrate the value of the research we are conducting.

In my time working in Papua New Guinea with a private company, I was able to see the direct benefits of corporate agriculture for the local villages and smallholder farmers.  Smallholder farmers were able to access global markets, expert advice, the latest genetics and a guaranteed payment for their produce. We are currently working with partners in PNG to build a relationship between public and private organisations.  This will hopefully yield results for all involved, students, researchers, company employees. We would not be able to ensure the same outcomes if we just focused on either public or private institutions alone.

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A recent CSU student tour of Ramu who produce sugar, ethanol and palm oil. Ramu is also the largest beef cattle producer in PNG. Ramu is a subsidiary of New Britain Palm Oil Limited (NBPOL), who work with 17,325 smallholders and outgrowers associated through the supply of product to their mills. Smallholders are "both a core part of [NBPOL's]corporate responsibility and crucial in the journey towards sustainability."

After all, when we complete a project having a small-holder – private company partnership that ensures the farmers continue to improve their practices, have market access, are paid a fair price, have access to technology and education is the ultimate goal.

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Think of sardines and most people think of those that come tightly packed in a tin.

But here in Timor-Leste, sardines come piled in the front of wooden canoes, their iridescent colours still bright. They come in black buckets balanced on bicycles, in bunches hanging from trees, in wreaths looped over motorbikes and in meticulously arranged rows on the side of the street.

These are the small, nutritious and surprisingly pretty fish that have brought me to live in Timor-Leste to do research for my PhD.

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The iridescent colours of a sardine (Sardinella sp.) caught in Timor-Leste – this one was prepared for transport to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, who are helping to verify its species identity.

Timor-Leste: just an hour flight north of Darwin, but a different world. Stepping off the plane in Dili you’re met with motorbikes on hot dusty roads, dry hills and a winding coastline. Palm trees, playing kids and brightly painted canoes scatter the beach.

This half-island nation is a youthful one: both in years since gaining Independence in 2002, but also in terms of its people – 74% are under the age of 351. Poverty, malnutrition, food insecurity, poor infrastructure and high youth unemployment are just some of the challenges gradually being addressed. And with 60% of people earning a living as farmers and/or fishers2, developing and enhancing the agricultural and fisheries sectors are vital.

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Fisheries in Timor-Leste are very small-scale: fish like sardines are caught from small wooden boats, then sold at the beach to waiting fish traders who take the fish to market.

My research investigates Timor-Leste’s sardine fisheries and the business of getting sardines from the ocean to the dinner plate – where and how this happens, the people involved, the importance of these activities for income and food, the challenges and opportunities.

However, doing this in a country and culture that are not my own, using languages that I’m still learning, and in several places at once, would be impossible without the team of amazing young Timorese men and women who I’ve had the fortune and privilege to engage in my research activities.

Over the past 18 months, around 40 local youth have worked with me in various roles – as data collectors, interviewers, general assistants and translators. For most, it has been their first experience of doing research. Many have graduated from university or high school but can’t find work; a few are still studying and help me during their holidays. Some have young children already; most still live at home and help their families with village life – collecting firewood, tending animals and gardens. All have been enthusiastic at the opportunity to learn new skills.

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Together with the interview team for household surveys in Bobonaro Municipality.

“This is my first time holding a tablet!” – The six faces in front of me were peering at the tablets I’d just handed out, looking slightly worried. It was our first day of training and we planned to survey 140 households in their two coastal villages using an electronic form. After we’d gone through the basics and spent a long time discussing the in-built skip-logic – that the survey questions would change depending on people’s previous answers – they had a practice and quickly got the hang of it. By the end of the week, not only had we successfully surveyed the full target number of households, but they wanted to know more – about downloading the data and making their own online surveys.

But the learning and knowledge sharing have gone both ways.

“It’s like this, sister…” – One of my data collectors in Dili, also a part-time fisher, was telling me how they sewed the sections of fishing net together and tied on the floats and sinkers. This was just one of many conversations where he and others have patiently explained how something works or why it happens that way – enabling me to gain a much better understanding of the detail. They’ve also made some great suggestions based on their local knowledge and experience. Through input from the team, I refined survey questions to ensure they made sense in the local context, which improved the quality of data collected.

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Asking a fisher about his day’s catch as he packs up his gear in Bobonaro Municipality.

Of course there have been challenges – lots of time spent training, some misunderstandings, mistakes, lessons on the importance of clear communication, language and cultural barriers. But both my research findings and my personal enjoyment have been enriched through the involvement of these young Timorese. And there have been shared benefits – for them, the opportunity to do research in their own communities, earn a bit of money and build skills, knowledge and confidence.

Next month I’m looking forward to hosting a small party at the beach to celebrate the research we’ve done together, with music (and dancing, I’m told), katupa rice parcels, and – if we’re lucky – some barbequed sardines.

Kim Hunnam is a PhD student from Charles Darwin University (CDU) and the Australian National University (ANU). She is conducting her research in Timor-Leste in collaboration with WorldFish, an international, non-profit research organisation, who works in partnership with the Timor-Leste Government Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Her research is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship, as well as funding from the North Australia Marine Research Alliance, CDU and the ANU.

1 Timor-Leste National Human Development Report 2018; 2 Based on ‘Occupation’ recorded in the Timor-Leste 2015 Census.


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