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ASI Game Changers: Meet Joao in Timor-Leste

Our “ASI Game Changers” series introduces the people who make our work possible and allows us to learn about what drives them in their quest to create lasting impact in some of the world’s most challenging, complex environments. In this edition we are speaking to our colleague Joao Martires in Timor-Leste.

  • Name: Joao Martires
  • Role: Operations and Finance Manager, TOMAK (To’os Ba Moris Diak/Farming for Prosperity)
  • Location: Dili, Timor-Leste

What’s your big “why”? What’s the positive change/impact you and others in your field are trying to achieve and what are some of the challenges you face whilst doing so?

Firstly, it’s not very often that you get to work in your own country when it’s only recently become a country, and build the systems that will help it to succeed. And that’s what we’re doing on TOMAK. Timor-Leste is just getting started as a nation, but a big part of what we’re doing on this programme is proving that ‘we can’.

Timor-Leste is always seen as a developing country but even within our team we’ve shown we have enough expertise nationally to deliver results. As a farmer’s son, it means a lot to see some of the aspirations my parents had for better crops come to fruition through TOMAK. And we are giving it our best to make sure that these techniques are learnt by rural people out in the field and sustained.

In the beginning there were quite a few challenges getting things going due to the political play-out in the ministries. However, we found that when we showed that our work wasn’t going to interfere with politics, things got going faster and faster. Fortunately, the TOMAK team is well-connected so it has been able to help the government understand what we’re working towards.

If you could write your own job title that best describes what you do here, what would it be?

In one word, bridge! I’ve lived in Australia and a big advantage of that is that I’m able to provide a translation of what is expected on the donor and ASI side, whilst also bringing insights from my own culture in Timor-Leste. A bridge also supports, and that’s a big part of my job – I work behind the scenes to ensure that programme activities go as planned with huge assistance from my very capable Operations team.

Another big part of my role is compliance – particularly ensuring the finances comply with donor, country and ASI requirements. I also oversee compliance with Timorese laws and ensure that the correct support, logistics, health and safety, and human resources are in place, to allow the programme to keep delivering. I always have it in the back of my mind that it’s Australian taxpayers’ money – it was given to us for a purpose, and we have a responsibility to look after it.

What do you like about working in a global development company?

There is a lot more support that comes with working for a global company – in many cases, you go to someone with a problem and the solutions are already there because the company has experienced similar issues somewhere else. From a practical point of view that kind of global experience is important – it means that a broader range of solutions is available. It also means you are always looking at how you can share your experiences with others. There’s a kind of equality that comes with sharing those kinds of lessons and looking at how fellow ASI employees have developed solutions elsewhere.

Management consultancies are businesses of course, but with ASI you can see that it’s a business that’s driven by wanting to make a difference to the wellbeing of people on this planet – and as a global company there’s much more capacity to do good things around the world.

What’s the most exciting thing happening in your project/at work right now?

There are several exciting things that are happening at the moment – the first is that we’re seeing the results from five years of programme implementation. Although my work on it is more focused on operational aspects, seeing TOMAK’s interventions result in tangible outcomes is really exciting – and admittedly this is particularly true for me as this is my country! One example is in shallot production – by introducing good-quality seeds, and showing farmers the best techniques for growing them, TOMAK has made a real difference. The quality of the shallots is great and the farmers are getting a reasonable price for them, and are much happier as a result.

This is the first project I’ve worked on where I’m really seeing teamwork coming to the fore, and of course it’s great to see Timorese expertise being put into play. On top of that, most of the specialists on TOMAK are female – and seeing them shine in a male-dominated society such as this one is really heart-warming.

It’s really rewarding seeing TOMAK’s government partners take more notice of nutrition messages, which is definitely helping malnutrition decrease. We’re also seeing more discussion on gender roles, and greater participation on the part of men in providing better nutrition to their children. Traditionally, in Timorese families, boys get given better food – but all that is changing now. TOMAK can’t take all the credit but it has definitely played a big role in the movement towards better nutrition.

What movements or discussions inspire you generally right now?

I feel most inspired by movements around women’s education, and also by discussions on climate change. It’s my hope that going forward TOMAK can be used as an instrument to provide some knowledge and practical solutions to mitigate and raise awareness about climate change in particular. Previously there was a ‘slash and burn’ approach to agriculture in Timor-Leste, partly because people here don’t see the effect it has globally. I think that TOMAK could definitely be used as a vehicle to address that. As a farmer’s son, I am passionate about making sure that what we do does not impact negatively on the environment.

What volunteering or passion projects do you do outside of work?

I’m a Board Member for the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room – it’s a museum, a library and a book shop, all rolled into one. It provides a creche that teaches children to read, and has a reference library of rare Timorese books, as well as courses in English language and accounting. Most of the services it offers are free.

The reason why I’m a Board Member there goes back to my childhood. When I was at school (Timor-Leste was under Portuguese rule then) the Portuguese children, and those whose parents worked for the Portuguese administration, had access to almost all the books. They had first dibs at everything and that’s just the way it was – access to those things was impossible for people whose families were farmers or didn’t have relatives in high places. Everyone else would have to share books between two or four people, and that had a huge impact on the education and prospects of the Timorese people. For that reason I support the Xanana Gusmao Reading Room, and I feel alive whenever I go to the graduation of someone who we’ve helped along the way.

What else makes me feel alive outside of work? A glass of vodka, lime and lemonade, with a dash of bitters! (Laughs).

What’s a quality a game changer should have and what’s your ambition to be one?

There are a few really important qualities, but for me the main one is an ability to understand both the big picture and the details at the same time. A game changer should be able to look at the whole forest – the roots, the trees, the wood that can turn into toothpicks that show you have eaten, the wood that can turn into matchsticks and burn the whole forest down – and then pull themselves back and understand how everything is connected. A game changer should have the ability to step back and see things from all angles before making a decision or trying to influence others to make a decision.

Listening to people is also extremely important, as is being flexible to ensure you’re always moving forward. And also keeping a good sense of perspective, realising that it’s not the end of the world when things don’t work out – but learning from them instead.

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