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Australian aid workers in East Timor find motivation and inspiration to help world's poorest farmers

Man with corn cob in a hand wound shelling device, in Dili, East Timor
Samuel Bacon, Australian agricultural aid worker with Seeds of Life program in East Timor helped import corn shelling device, saving labour and thumbs

ABC Rural: Sarina Locke

An Australian agricultural aid worker motivated to assist East Timorese people has helped farmers double crop yields and find useful time saving devices.

Australia will spend more than $200 million on overseas agricultural aid this year.

The projects aim to improve crop varieties, and farming techniques, develop better feed for livestock and help them market their produce.

Aid workers like Samuel Bacon say they find the work fulfilling, because the results can be dramatic.

Mr Bacon came to East Timor to work with farming families.

His journey led to doubling corn production, which started when he accidentally fried the electricity in a Timorese home in Los Palos, trying to screen a film.

"The community wanted to see it, so the next day I bought electrical gear and rewired his house," Mr Bacon said.

"In a break I was talking to his wife over a cup of coffee and I asked 'what are your needs and struggles'".

The answer was air-tight storage, because almost all the corn they could grow became infested with pests.

They had small drums from a previous Australian program through the Seeds of Life aid program, but it wasn't enough.

"They could produce 1.5 tonnes on their 1.5 hectares of land, the rest was eaten by rats and weevils," Mr Bacon said.

"We started to need a bigger idea for corn storage, so we looked at tanks being produced locally and how we could modify them to be air-tight, to suffocate the weevils inside."

Offer a helping hand rather than a handout

A Chinese proverb says "give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime".

Mr Bacon's motivations are in that vein. He wanted the farmers to invest in grain storage, not be given handouts.

"So for the sizeable $600 - $700 loan, we entered a business arrangement.

"And for me to assist him, I really wanted to understand his production, his input and labour costs, and how we could help him get better yields reduce his labour.

"So we started, made up a diary, and I said 'every time you walk into that field, I want you to write down what you do, how many people were working that day, the costs, buying some food for the farmers, or if you've killed a chicken or two to feed them, buying rice or corn'.'"

The result showed the biggest labour effort was in shelling the corn.

With the group of 50-60 people having to shell 25 tonnes, it would take many days and required goats to feed everyone.

"It was a massive job, difficult for the women and some people were freeloading and you'd have to feed them as well.

"I remember seeing this as a kid at country shows where you put a corn cob in and wound the corn off. Looking on the internet, [I found] there were some available in China."

Importing corn devices to boost productivity

The project imported thousands of the devices.

The hand winding shelling device, will shell the corn at least four times as fast, without the split thumbs.

Mr Bacon started working with the Australian program Seeds of Life, which developed new high yielding crops, and brought the Las Palos farmer into that program.

The program wrapped up in 2016.

When asked what poverty meant in countries like East Timor, Mr Bacon said "it's a whole lot of pressures from a lot of different directions".

"It's farming, social, it's health. Even your inability to understand things because as a child you didn't get enough nutrition.

"So we have to be careful to help them move into a future that is comfortable. They just want to be happy."

Sarina Locke travelled with the not for profit Crawford Fund, as a recipient of the Food Security Journalism Award.