Addressing Timor-Leste’s Food Security and Nutrition

The transformation of Timor-Leste’s agricultural sector is crucial in addressing its food insecurity and malnutrition. Photo credit: ADB.

Share on:           


Boosting agricultural productivity through technology, training, and better farmer access to markets will enhance food stability.


Timor-Leste is predominantly an agrarian economy with 66% of households engaged in some form of subsistence agriculture. Agriculture contributes to about 16% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Coffee, its main cash crop, comprises over 90% of its non-oil exports.

However, it is a food-deficit country with 60% of its food being imported, including 45% of its rice—its main staple. Eleven of its 14 municipalities are classified as phase 3 crisis mode and the remaining three as phase 2 stressed mode based on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).

Stunting rate among children under five years old is at 47%—among the highest in Southeast Asia. Undernutrition in children has been linked to lower educational attainment levels and subsequently reduced incomes as adults in the workforce. Estimates peg an annual loss of $41 million to the economy due to undernutrition.

But with the dependency ratio[1] showing a declining trend, Timor-Leste can reap demographic dividends with the right set of socio-economic policies to spur economic growth.

Food Security Challenges

As a small island developing state and being in a fragile and conflict-affected situation, Timor-Leste faces several challenges. It is vulnerable to disasters caused by natural hazards and climate change risks.

Agricultural productivity in the country is below that of other small island developing states. Food insecurity is high, with the average rate of moderate or severe food insecurity at 36%, compared with 18% in Southeast Asia. It ranks 110 out of the 121 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2022 with a score of 30.6 which places it on a serious severity scale.

Food availability
Low agricultural yields in Timor-Leste can be attributed to poor soil, steep slopes, highly variable rainfall, and the absence of climate smart and good agriculture practices.

Postharvest losses have been pegged in the 20%–50% range. Seed and grain storage methods do not mitigate against pests and moisture, resulting in poor yields the following year. Land area under cultivation also went down 35% between 2001 and 2020. Further, only a small fraction of households has piped water access.

The lack of proper waste disposal, particularly in rural areas, results in the high prevalence of infectious diseases in livestock. This means poor quality of meat, eggs, and milk—all of which result in reduced nutritional value.

Lack of collateral for standard micro-credit schemes also limits the farmers’ access to credit that can enable them to afford relevant agricultural inputs.

Access to food
While Timor-Leste made impressive progress in developing its road network in the last decade, a large part of the country’s road infrastructure deteriorated over time due to lack of maintenance. Transportation systems are particularly impacted during the wet season. With 70% of the population residing in rural areas, reliable road networks are essential to ensure year-round accessibility.

Poor rural roads also hinder the movement of food grains and contribute to post-harvest losses. Food shortages and sharp spikes in food prices are observed during the rainy season when landslides limit access to municipalities.

Cost and affordability of nutritious diets is also an issue. Estimates show the daily cost of a minimum nutritious food basket has almost doubled to $10.09 in 2023 from $5.68 in 2019 per household. A household spends over $300 per month to meet these costs, more than twice the national minimum wage of $115.

Food utilization
Utilization relates to the quality of diet and ensuring nutrition. Improving utilization requires adding food with high nutritional value to the diet, improving food safety, and increasing diversity of the diet.

Timor-Leste has a nutrition source disparity. Across two decades between 2002 and 2020, the average dietary energy supply adequacy grew to 106% in 2020 from 92% 2002, matched by an increase in the protein intake to 58% from 52%, and a decline in the dietary energy derived from starchy tubers to 67% from 73%. However, the average supply of protein of animal origin remained constant at approximately 18%.

The country also lacks diversification in food nutrition. It is reported that over half the newborns are not breastfed within the first hour of delivery and nearly 36% of children between 0-5 months have not been exclusively breastfed.

Stability of food supply
Food security requires stability and reliability of food supply. Food insecurity may be temporary when there are short-term distresses such as bad farming season and change in employment. However, climate change and natural hazards have had markedly destabilizing effects on food security. Timor-Leste ranked 16 out of 181 countries in the World Risk Index ranks.

High food import dependency makes the country susceptible to external shocks such as supply chain disruptions, global inflation, and conflicts. An increase in price of food particularly affects the poor as they spend a much higher portion of their income on food.

With approximately 54% of household spending towards food and non-alcoholic drinks in the consumer price index basket, even slight changes in the food prices impacts the population.

Addressing Food Insecurity

Strengthening Timor-Leste’s food systems with sustainable long-term methods can serve as the common denominator to enhance the pillars of food security (availability, access, utilization, and stability).

Introduction of climate-smart and good agriculture practices is a good starting point to boost agricultural productivity and ensure food availability. Possible measures include:

Modernization and mechanization of agriculture. Climate resistant techniques, use of quality seeds, tractors and harvesters, and adequate irrigation systems with regular maintenance and need-based renovation should be implemented—with financial support from the government and development partners. Introducing storage facilities, such as crib storage, granary storage, hermetic storage, and single storage of seeds and grains can reduce post-harvest losses and ensure produce longevity.

Change in the community’s social and behavior attitude. This can be implemented by providing training and mentoring and facilitating peer visits to demonstrate successful implementation of advocated methods. Interventions can be implemented and financed with support from development partners, similar to TOMAK (To’os ba Moris Di’ak or Farming for Prosperity), a 10-year agriculture livelihood program funded by the Australian government.

Development of value chains for agricultural produce. This will improve current commercialization rates. Potential areas for commercialization are premium grade coffee and vanilla, and forestry products such as candlenuts, spices, and wood, and maize. National and international development agencies with multi-disciplinary technical advisory teams can help address long-term financing options, bridge existing gaps, and facilitate activities in agriculture, livestock, and fisheries by providing technical assistance, credit, and training.

Strong social safety net programs. The government is cognizant of the importance of diet and ensuring nutrition—key factors in food utilization. The Merenda Escolar school feeding program saw an increment in the value of school meal per child going up to $0.45 in 2023 from $0.25 in 2022, resulting in a total budget allocation of $22.4 million in 2023. Social programs should incorporate food fortification (e.g., fortification of salt, rice and edible oils) to address nutritional deficiencies. Focus should be placed on promoting nutrition counseling and the benefits of breastfeeding. Social and behavior change communication should be customized to local context and delivered by community-based workers.

A multi-sectoral approach is required to tackle food security. This will involve simultaneously taking action on:

Improved access in remote areas and for small holders. There needs to be special focus on feeder roads that connect mainstream roads to small rural plots and remote areas, which will allow for last-mile delivery and also allow farmers to generate more income from cash crops, livestock products, and other enterprises, thereby contributing to the overall socioeconomic development.

Built-in investments in road maintenance. An efficient operations and maintenance (O&M) system that considers Timor-Leste’s difficult topology and fiscal issues can translate to an effective road network and provide better access to food.
Stronger overall public financial management system. Good O&M management and capacity in medium-term budgeting and planning need to be built into the Ministry of Public Works.

Comprehensive registry of all households. A registry, especially of poor and vulnerable households, will enable informed decision-making during crises and in developing a flexible and scalable risk-informed shock responsive system. A range of policy interventions may be deployed to ensure the food system’s stability, especially during a crisis. Although several social protection policies are in place, implementation is low. Vertical and horizontal expansion of ongoing social protection programs and registry of households is needed to improve targeting.


The transformation of Timor-Leste’s agricultural sector is crucial to address the current state of food insecurity, malnutrition, and the pertinent challenges of poverty reduction.

With unanimous agreement to support increased investments in food security through higher budget allocations, simultaneous focus needs to be on a robust infrastructure network that consists of strengthening access routes across all municipalities, improving the irrigation infrastructure, and developing adequate storage infrastructure capacity.

However, the cross-cutting challenges and structural problems need a multisectoral approach where the government needs to play a stronger role in the effective coordination and management of scarce resources.

A systemic approach under the guidance of an apex government agency, such as a Nutrition Directorate, is imperative to generate complementarity of scattered initiatives by the government and development partners. This agency should comprise of agricultural scientists, extension officers and other senior government officials.

Effectiveness of interventions also requires a strong monitoring and evaluation framework. Simultaneous efforts in periodic data collection to obtain reliable national estimates will aid monitoring and evaluation as a mechanism devised on objective parameters and reliable data sets will help with course correction and future policy discourses.

This Insight article was prepared by Kavita Iyengar and Sonali Swain.

[1] Dependency ratio is the agepopulation ratio of those not in the labor force to those in the active labor force. This declined to 68 in 2022 from 81 in 2015.


A. Provo, et al. 2017. Malnutrition in Timor-Leste: A Review of the Burden, Drivers, and Potential Response. Washington, DC. World Bank.

Government of Timor-Leste and Ministry of Health. 2012. Multisectoral Approaches to Nutrition. Dili.

UNICEF. 2022. Nutrition in Timor-Leste: An Investment Opportunity for Private and Public Donors. Dili.

Kavita Iyengar
Economist, Southeast Asia Department, Asian Development Bank

Kavita Iyengar is an economist at the Southeast Asia Department. Previously, she was country economist at ADB’s Timor-Leste Resident Mission and focal for regional cooperation and knowledge management at the India Resident Mission. Her varied work experience includes teaching, environment consulting, and publishing. She has a PhD from Clark University in the United States.

Asian Development Bank (ADB)

The Asian Development Bank is committed to achieving a prosperous, inclusive, resilient, and sustainable Asia and the Pacific, while sustaining its efforts to eradicate extreme poverty. Established in 1966, it is owned by 68 members—49 from the region. Its main instruments for helping its developing member countries are policy dialogue, loans, equity investments, guarantees, grants, and technical assistance.

Follow Asian Development Bank (ADB) on
Leave your question or comment in the section below:

The views expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) or its Board of Governors or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the accuracy of the data included in this publication and accepts no responsibility for any consequence of their use. By making any designation of or reference to a particular territory or geographic area, or by using the term “country” in this document, ADB does not intend to make any judgments as to the legal or other status of any territory or area.