- East Timor (1999-2005, 2009)
- Peacekeeping operations
Australian Army peacekeepers, Shannon French, Tom Mahon, Tom Potter and Cameron Wheelehen had no experience and knowledge of the coffee industry before they stumbled upon the village of Belumhato, Timor-Leste in 2012. Their subsequent journey has been as much about helping the people of that beleaguered country as it has been about establishing their business, Wild Timor Coffee.
Private Shannon French learnt a hard lesson about Timor-Leste’s economy in September 2000, while on patrol with Charlie Company, 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR). Hacking a path through the scrub, French came face to face with an extremely angry man, armed with a very large machete:
Coffee is a very big deal in Timor and has been the island’s most valuable cash crop for almost two centuries. According to Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC) figures, coffee generated 24 percent of the value of all exports for the country in 2017. It is grown by one-third of households and provides up to 90 percent of the annual income for one quarter of all Timorese.
French’s unwitting destruction of the precious resource was a potentially lethal provocation in a fledgling nation struggling to recover from a quarter- century of Indonesian rule and civil war. And French was finding Timor-Leste dangerous enough already:
When French returned for another tour of Timor in 2012—this time as a reservist with 5/6 Battalion, Royal Victorian Regiment (5/6 RVR)—he was heartened to find that a more optimistic and relaxed atmosphere prevailed. The acute threat posed by pro-Indonesia militiamen in 2000 was gone, and much rebuilding had occurred. Extreme poverty remained, however. It was on this tour, in company with three other diggers—Tom Mahon, Tom Potter, and Cameron Wheelehen—that French experienced his third transformative encounter with Timorese coffee.
The four peacekeepers met local boy, Jack, at Belumhato, nestled in the Aileu Forest south of Timor-Leste’s capital, Dili. Hard-nosed middlemen were gouging the village—their new friend explained— paying rock-bottom prices for coffee beans, they claimed were sub-standard, but which they then on-sold for big profits. Jack wanted to sell Belumhato’s coffee direct to Australia.
The diggers bought 600 kilograms of wholly organic beans (common plantation pests, khapra beetles and leaf rust diseases, are absent on Timor—rendering pesticides and chemical fumigation unnecessary) and transported them to Melbourne. The resulting brew was sampled by French’s neighbour, Tony Zammit. It was, according to the former coffee company national sales manager, ‘amazing’.
Coffee was introduced to Timor by the Portuguese two hundred years ago. Plantations, abandoned during decolonisation in the 1970s, fell into disuse during the 24 years of Indonesian rule. Feral coffee plants, spreading through the jungle, developed into a unique natural crossbreed of the arabica and robusta varieties—the hibrido de Timor.
Hibrido de Timor combines the sweet, smooth flavour profile of arabica with the coarser high caffeine-hit of robusta—blending, in the minds of many aficionados, the most compelling elements of each. The hybrid—unique, vigorous and complex—is an apt metaphor for the tiny, irrepressible, nation, which fought fiercely for its independence and now strives to establish itself on the world’s stage.
French and Potter returned to Belumhato in late 2012 when their tour ended. Watching youTube videos on the finer points of coffee production, the men had big plans to improve the lot of the Timorese (and themselves)—‘…through trade, not aid’. Potter, the group’s chief buyer for many years, plays a smaller role nowadays, but retains a silent stake in the wholesale importation business, Wild Timor Coffee, which today is run primarily by Wheelehen and Mahon.
The Wild Timor Coffee Co. supplies dozens of cafés, across Melbourne and Australia. Two of these cafés (in Carlton and Coburg) bear the Wild Timor Coffee name, as does a coffee cart business in Brisbane, owned by ex- 6RAR peacekeeper Luke Worth. Another former 6RAR man, Vietnam veteran Paul Beraldo, of Melbourne coffee industry big fish Beraldo Coffee, has become an important mentor for the business. He and French met marching to the Shrine of Remembrance on Anzac Day, 2001.
Along with a number of other commercial ventures, including a coconut oil business based in the village of Lospalos in Timor-Leste’s far east, French is responsible for Wild Timor Café on Sydney Road, Coburg. The young, enthusiastic staff who manage the café day-to-day are as passionate about social justice as they are about coffee culture. Staff forgo tips—the coins and notes thrown into the jar instead fund new equipment and development projects in Belumhato as well as staff exchanges between Melbourne and Timor. Mahon explains:
Store manager, Lauren Harrison, loves being able to ‘…work and simultaneously help people.’ And Wheelehen understands the sacrifices they make:
When asked why the peacekeepers embarked upon a business for which none had prior knowledge, Wheelehen replies:
Wild Timor Coffee have an excellent product, no question, but they have had a difficult road, nonetheless. Timor- Leste’s coffee industry is a premium, organic producer, backed by Fairtrade, but poor national infrastructure and high labour costs (stemming from Timor- Leste’s use of the United States’ dollar), reduces global competitiveness. Coffee yields remain low, nationally, due to low capital investment and simple farming methods. As Shannon French opines, ‘…there is nothing easy or straightforward about doing business in Timor.’
Giving villagers their due, means lower profit margins for Wild Timor Coffee. Mahon:
There is hope that these direct trade practices might pay off financially, though. Wheelehen again:
When asked why Wild Timor Coffee persists working with the Timorese when they could arguably run a more profitable business dealing in another nation, or by employing a more hard-nosed attitude, the last word goes to Mahon:
About the author
Neil Sharkey has been the Curator at the Shrine of Remembrance since January 2007. He curated the Shrine’s Second World War Gallery and has developed dozens of temporary exhibitions including, most recently, The Korean War and The Cinderella Service: Australians in Coastal Command 1939–45