Student series – #6 Jennifer McKellar

From the field

By Jennifer McKellar
PhD Student, Jennifer McKellar, recently returned from a scoping trip to Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea, where she will undertake fieldwork examining women’s economic empowerment in coffee farming communities. In the following blog, she reflects on her initial impressions of the area she will soon be calling home.

One of the most striking and unexpected pleasures of visiting the PNG highlands is the abundance of beautiful flowers lining the highways and vegetable gardens. Various species from around the globe, including gladiolis, daisies, marigolds, irises, roses and numerous others outside my limited knowledge, can be found alongside fresh food and coffee cash crops. In preparation for my work in PNG, I had been reading about the highlands and its rapid shift from a subsistence agricultural society to one embedded in global markets through the production and export of coffee.  My research had led me to imagine small-scale farms focused entirely on either coffee or fresh food production, and so it was something of a surprise to see the effort expended on plants which are neither eaten nor sold.

My thinking is, of course, a very obvious example of the commercial framework through which someone of my white, western, sometime corporate background might construct the world. Numerous books and journal articles that I had read spoke of the enthusiasm with which capitalism was adapted into highlands exchange culture, and the rapid expansion of smallholder coffee planting was part of this. However, the elaborate tribal costumes, masks, body decorations and jewellery which are used in ceremony and celebration throughout PNG, and which are similarly well documented, should have given a strong hint of the emphasis placed on the visual aesthetic. That this would be expressed in more everyday ways should not have been unexpected.

Conversely, fresh food is used decoratively in ways that western customs might utilise fresh flowers. During my stay, a colleague from a partner organisation sadly passed away. He was only 39 years old and was unable to access appropriate health care for a sudden onset illness – a risk most PNG people live with. His colleagues held a ceremony at their offices to welcome the body from the funeral home in Goroka, before it was returned to the family village nearby for burial. In preparation for the event, the offices and reception area were decorated with vegetables and sugar cane, as well as flowers, and these food items formed part of the gift to the family.

Bunches of carrots, cabbages, bananas and other edibles were grouped attractively in stands and strung from the gates. The sugar cane (an important ceremonial exchange item) was arranged in an archway through which the body passed. The work of collecting money, purchasing and arranging the food items was undertaken by the women, but as soon as the body had departed to the village, the men immediately brought it all down and set about the business of determining who should receive what.

Later, at a more joyous event, pineapples were used as both decoration and gifts for guests. The ceremony on this occasion was to mark the end of a savings cycle for three groups in a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA). This particular form of savings group is new to PNG but common in Africa, India, and other developing countries [1] [2], and aims to help people in low resource settings access credit and savings when banks are not a viable option. For two of the groups it was their second saving cycle, with one cycle generally running over 9 to 12 months. At the end of the cycle the savings and profits from loans are distributed in a “share out” ceremony [3].

Prior to the share out, the VSLA participants lined up in two rows. Guests, including myself, passed by them to receive pineapples – a gift of the community’s hard labour [4].  In this community, pineapples have commercial significance as they are a cash crop introduced through the work of the local church leader. As the story goes, he collected discarded pineapple tops from rubbish piles as starter plants, which earned him numerous concerned looks and comments from fellow highlanders [5]. A number of families now earn money from this crop and the entrepreneurial Pastor has moved on to another food project involving bulb onions – something you’ll read more about in future blogs.

The economic potential of fresh food is being replicated (on a much smaller scale) with flowers. There is a commercial flower industry emerging in PNG and, like coffee and food crops, it is dominated by smallholders. In 2018 the first Flower Show was held in Lae to support this emerging industry and showcase flower arranging talent[6]. The nature of this crop lends itself to photography, and businesses are using Instagram to promote their wares[7].

Many flowers can of course be eaten, and so to some extent the distinction between flowers and food crops is culturally determined. Flowers, which attract pollinating insects and birds, are also an important factor in crop production and pest management and reduce the need for chemical pest control. From an economic development perspective, the two types of crops have traditionally been the domain of women, and so there is potential for women to benefit from their increased commercial production. The Pacific Livelihoods Research Group is working with communities in PNG to understand how best to develop this potential, and to understand the opportunities and constraints the women face in developing their agricultural businesses. I will report more on this topic and its complexities as I complete my PhD fieldwork during 2020.

Photo Credit: Jennifer McKellar

Jennifer McKellar’s research is affiliated with the ACIAR-funded project ‘Improving livelihoods of smallholder coffee communities in Papua New Guinea’ (ACIAR ASEM-2016-100). Her research is funded by Curtin University, an Australian Government Research Training Program scholarship, and the Pacific Livelihoods Research Group.

[1] See Biggart, Nicole Woolsey. 2001. “Banking on Each Other: The Situational Logic of Rotating Savings and Credit Associations.” Advances in Qualitative Organization Research 3: 129–53 for an overview of rotating savings and credit facilities in the global context.

[2] While this particular form of savings group is new to PNG, others have been in operation since at least the 1970s. See Sexton, Lorraine. 1980. Mothers of Money, Daughters of Coffee. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press.

[3] Village Savings and Loans Associations are currently being piloted in PNG under the ACIAR-funded project “Identifying opportunities and constraints for rural women’s engagements in small-scale agricultural enterprises in Papua New Guinea” (ACIAR ASEM-2014-054) by researchers from Curtin University and the PNG Coffee Industry Corporation and implemented by CARE International in PNG.

[4] Pineapples are not the easiest crop to grow. They take around 18 months to fruit and you are likely to get cuts from the plants when clearing weeds.

[5] For more on the adoption of pineapple and other food crops in the Bena area see Inu, Susan May. 2015. “The Influence of Socio-Economic Factors in Farm Investment Decisions and Labour Mobilisation in Smallholder Coffee Production in Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea.

[6] For details see

[7] See, for example, @gorokasbeautifulblooms on Instagram