Name: Marcal Gusmao Australia Awards Alumni and Small Grant Awardee
Institution: University of Western Australia
Course of study: PHD in Agronomy
Timor-Leste is a fertile country yet many people don’t have enough nutritious food to eat. Current farming practices aren’t maximising crop production, a high percentage of food is imported and child stunting due to poor nutrition persists. Marcal Gusmao, Australia Awards alumni and UNTL researcher and lecturer, is on a quest to change this.
Since undertaking his PHD in Agronomy in 2011 at the University of Western Australia, Marcal’s initiated a series of projects to find legume (bean and pea) species with the potential to thrive in Timor’s dry season conditions and to rotate with other crops to increase overall food production.
Having tested 12 legume plant species Marcal is now using an Australia Awards funded small grant to focus further plant trials on two promising legumes species – the kidney bean and the grass pea. Both plants add nitrogen to the soil, are great soil improvers and seem likely to be good candidates to use for crop rotation.
Grass pea plants thrive in arid and waterlogged conditions so it’s potential for use in Timor-Leste, which experiences regular drought and flooding is very exciting. Originally developed in the Middle East, the grass pea was introduced to Western Australia over a decade ago. It’s also grown extensively in South Asia supporting food production in countries like Bangladesh, which are subject to severe weather conditions and food production shortages.
High in protein and a staple of many Timorese dishes, kidney beans are currently only grown in Timor at high elevations where the air is cooler and there’s more rainfall. But initial promising findings from Marcel’s project show kidney bean plants can also be grown in the hot season and in low land conditions.
Marcal is passionate about helping his country to produce more high protein food and to maximise the use of farm land. He told us; ‘There’s so much opportunity to raise production levels in general, especially in the lowland areas of Suai, Ainaro, Same, Viqueque and Manatutu.’
His trial is not without its challenges however. Some species of grass pea are toxic to humans so Marcal needs to make sure he cultivates the right grass pea seeds. There’s also a virus that attacks kidney bean leaves, which he must contend with.
He also knows it will take time to convince government agencies of the results of his work and local farmers of the potential benefits of changing their farming habits, but he’s determined to prove his hypothesis. If all goes to plan the next phase of the project is to start farm trials of kidney bean and grass pea plants in a rice fields in Baucau. These fields are traditionally left fallow after the rice crop is harvested, but Marcal aims to show how they can provide an additional nutritious crop of legumes before the next rice sowing season.
Marcal’s project is a powerful example of how Australia Awards Alumni are demonstrating leadership in their chosen field and furthering the development of their country. We wish him every success in his endeavour.