Linking local entrepreneurship and research – a solid foundation for sustainable development

By Jennifer McKellar

In rural Eastern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea, the Pacific Livelihoods Research Group (PLRG) has been working with a community and other partners on two projects (ACIAR ASEM-2008-036 and ACIAR ASEM-2016-100) aimed at improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. When PhD student Jennifer McKellar visited the field site recently, she found that the community has been working on complementary enterprises – sharing knowledge, labour and resources to improve their own lives.

In the Bena district of Eastern Highlands Province (EHP), members of four local villages come together every Tuesday, either to participate in a Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) scheme introduced by researchers at Curtin University and the PNG Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC) in partnership with CARE International in PNG, or to work on the community led enterprise focused on the production and marketing of brown onions. The two projects are closely linked, as profits from one are invested in the other.

Smallholder coffee farmers in EHP often diversify their income streams through fresh food marketing or other small business enterprises such as fish farming. You may recall from my previous blog the enterprising church leader who was instrumental in the development of pineapple as a cash crop in the area [1]. With some external assistance to help get him started, this same leader, Pastor Albert Ukaia, is now focusing on brown onion (or bulb onion as it known in PNG) as a new income source for the community. In a country where transport is difficult, refrigeration is extremely limited and market demand uncertain, a product such as onion which has an extended shelf life makes good economic sense.

Plate 1. A fish farmer in the Bena area with his ponds. He raises carp and tilapia and uses income from this to supplement earnings from fresh food marketing and coffee.

The first phase of the enterprise involved setting up raised garden beds underneath a grove of orange trees. The onions were initially raised from seed in nursery beds and then transplanted to the larger raised beds. I recently spent a week with the Pastor, as he is known, and got to hear firsthand his thinking behind the business [2].

“As you can see there is a lot of space in the orange orchard, and I was wondering – how can we better use this space? How can we make more money from this space?”

He decided on bulb onions for the reasons given above and set to work mobilising the community to construct 2m x 2m plots bordered with timber to contain topsoil enriched with goat manure. Citrus plants have shallow roots and he therefore wanted to ensure that this other cash crop was not negatively impacted. Three plots were allocated to each VSLA savings group member. Husbands and wives were given their own separate allocation, and responsibility for plot maintenance and produce marketing fell to the plot owner, who was also entitled to keep the sale proceeds.

Plate 2. Orange grove with bulb onion boxes.

I roughly estimated the proceeds from market to be around K30 to K70 per plot [3]. The Pastor had previously advised my supervisor that this would result in a profit between K10 and K50. In local markets, onions are sold individually with price based on size. Small onions sell for around 10t, and larger onions around 50 to 60t. The Pastor noted that size comes down to the amount of care given to the plot, and he felt that through this process, and seeing the outcomes from their neighbours’ plots, community members learned the value of good plot maintenance.

During my stay, the first cycle of planting was almost finished, and the Pastor was encouraging the community to expand the enterprise. Every alternate Tuesday is a community workday, with members attending to their plots or working on other group projects. The members had agreed that the onion project was a success and so the focus of the day was to clear more land previously under sweet potato cultivation for onion planting. The high rainfall experienced in the region also requires drains to be dug, and this work was undertaken by the men while the women weeded. Seedling planting boxes were also prepared using a specific ratio of river sand, soil and manure. Members of the VSLA group are fined an amount agreed to in the group rules if they fail to attend community workdays – generally 1 to K2.

Plate 3. Community members working to clear a new area for an extension of the bulb onion project.

This new phase of the enterprise will see a shift in approach – production will be managed on a co-operative basis with all proceeds shared equally among group members. The Pastor believed that the experience gained through the individual exercise has provided both expertise and motivation to attempt a more co-operative approach. His goal is to create a business whereby the size, quality and volume of the onion produced is sufficiently consistent to engage in alternative supply channels, such as to local fish canners. This will significantly free-up people’s time spent marketing onions, although some may prefer the higher retail price they can achieve by selling the onions themselves.

The final piece of the puzzle ties the food production to the other initiative supported by researchers from Curtin University, CSIRO and CIC – the coffee demucilager or “eco-pulper” as the Pastor prefers to call it. This technology, relatively new to PNG, aims to improve the quality and consistency of coffee parchment produced in the area. Coffee is one of the core sources of income for many families in EHP, but often returns on labour are low due to manual processing which, if performed poorly, results in a lower quality product. As well as contributing to addressing quality issues, the eco-pulper, so named as it uses less water than a regular pulper, produces bio-waste which is high in nutrients and suitable for soil enrichment. It has been estimated that the nutrients from processing a 60kg bag of coffee cherry is equivalent to between K20 and K40 worth of fertiliser [4]. The eco-pulper, pictured below, has been purposely installed close to the raised onion boxes so the nutrients in the waste stream can be recycled through the onion plots.

Plate 4. The demucilager – or eco-pulper – will reduce labour inputs and help coffee farmers achieve a better price for their product.

Overall, the integration of evidence-based research and local entrepreneurship provides a strong foundation for sustainable development. While I was unfortunately required to return to Australia early due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I look forward to reporting further on the progress of this work in the future.

Acknowledgements: Jennifer’s research has been funded through an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship, by Curtin University, and the Pacific Livelihoods Research Group (PLRG). She thanks Pastor Albert Ukaia and his family for hosting her during her fieldwork, and the CIC for assisting with logistics. The PLRG research in the Eastern Highlands is supported by two Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research grants, see here and here for more details.

Photo Credit: Jennifer McKellar

[1] Pineapples were introduced to the area by Baptist missionaries in the 1960s, but never gained traction as a significant cash crop until 2008 due to the work of Pastor Albert Ukaia. For more on this 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.” pp118-119.

[2] This is a translation/paraphrase of our Tok Pisin conversation.

[3] The unit of currency in PNG is the Kina (K) and smaller denominations are Toea (100t = PGK 1; PGK 1 ~ AUD 0.45)

[4] For full details on fertiliser/coffee pulp comparability refer to Curry, George, Mike Webb, Gina Koczberski, Johannes Pakatul, Susan May Inu, Emma Kiup, Matilda Hamago, et al. 2017. “Improving Livelihoods of Smallholder Families through Increased Productivity of Coffee-Based Farming Systems in the Highlands of PNG.” Canberra. fr2017-08.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y