Improving Women’s Access to Cash Crop Income in Papua New Guinea

By Gina Koczberski

Export tree crop production is an integral component of household livelihood strategies in many rural areas of Papua New Guinea (PNG).  In PNG, men typically control the income earned from women’s labour in export crop production. Women’s labour input alone may not give them secure rights to the income generated from their labour, and this can fuel intra-household tensions over the disbursement of the income. Women’s limited access to this income is one reason why many rural women in households engaging in export crop production earn a substantial proportion of their income from sales of fresh food produce at local markets where they have greater control over the income earned.

Several studies in PNG have identified women’s disadvantaged position in commodity export production. However, rarely have attempts been made to address the inequitable access to, and control of, the income from commodity crop production. The Pacific Livelihoods Research Group has completed an evaluation of a more gender equitable payment system initiated in 1997 by extension officers in the oil palm growing areas of West New Britain Province, PNG.  The payment system, known as the Mama Lus Frut Scheme (MLFS) was introduced to enable women to sell oil palm ‘loose fruit’ (the ripe fruitlets dislodged from the main oil palm bunch during harvesting) from the family farm and receive their own direct payment independent of their husband. Prior to the scheme, oil palm income was paid by the milling company solely to the male household head and most women’s participation in household oil palm production was minimal.  This was because of the uncertain remuneration of their labour, and their husbands’ inadequate financial contributions to the upkeep of the family. 

By guaranteeing payment of women’s labour, the Mama Lus Frut Scheme addressed the deep-rooted problem of intra-household tensions over women’s labour and remuneration in oil palm production.  After twenty years of operation, it was timely to assess the effectiveness and economic and social outcomes of the Mama Lus Frut Scheme for women and their families. The evaluation focussed on the long-term socio-economic changes resulting from the scheme. Methods included: survey questionnaires, informal interviews and focus groups with women, interviews with female and male extension officers, and consultation of secondary data. The findings of the evaluation are outlined in the report “Improving Women’s access to Cash Crop Income in Papua New Guinea. A gender-inclusive extension initiative from the Oil Palm Industry: The Mama Lus Frut Scheme”. 

A summary of the outcomes of the Mama Lus Frut Scheme for women at Hoskins, where the scheme initially was introduced in 1997 are shown below.

Hoskin’s Mama Lus Frut Scheme: twenty years on

In 2017, in the oil palm growing areas of Hoskins where the MLFS was introduced 20 years ago:

  • 73% of women claim their primary income source is oil palm.
  • Over 6,280 women have their own Mama Card.
  • The majority (69%) of women have had their own Mama Card for more than fifteen years.
  • 97% of women claim that they have control over the income and how the Mama Card is used.
  • Women share their card with other female members of their immediate family and extended family, allowing 82% of women access to the Mama Card.
  • Average income earned per mama in 2016 was K238/ fortnight.  This is a very reasonable fortnightly income in rural PNG. In 2016 the minimum hourly rural wage rate was K3.50.
  • Women earn 33% of total household oil palm income.
  • Almost 90% of women agreed that the introduction of the Mama Card has benefited them and other women co-residing with them.
  • Around 70% of women have their own personal bank account and just over half of them reported being able to save some of their oil palm income.

The report documents substantial economic and social benefits for women and smallholder households. When women were asked to identify the main long-term benefits of the scheme, many claimed greater financial independence as a major outcome of the scheme.  There were several dimensions to how women expressed their financial independence.  The most common of which were: a greater sense of ‘freedom’ and ‘voice’ on how income is spent; more control over their ability to meet family needs and to assist family members; more capacity to financially contribute to customary activities in their village and community; and a greater ability to save and overcome barriers that previously made some goals unattainable.  

Gaining control over a regular income source made it easier for women to care for their immediate family members and relatives. Most women regularly directed their income towards family and other relatives through the purchase of food, clothes for family members, household items and school fees.  The purchase of food was by far the most important use of income.  Given that per capita access to land for food gardening has been declining over the past two decades and many families have very limited and insecure access to land for food gardens, it is probable that women’s increased purchasing power to buy food has improved household food security and child nutrition. 

Twenty years on, despite new challenges facing the future long-term benefits of the Mama Lus Frut Scheme as documented in the report, women continue to experience significant economic and social advantages from selling loose fruit. The Mama Lus Frut Scheme has changed many facets of women’s lives, both at a personal and household level. From the viewpoint of women, the benefits of having their own independent income stream, go well beyond the direct monetary gains.  At a personal level, being better able to overcome many of the struggles they faced prior to the scheme has given many women a greater sense of power and more confidence in their ability to make a change to their own lives and that of their families.

The evaluation, which was part of larger project examining women’s economic livelihoods, highlights the critical role that agricultural extension organisations and export firms can play in advancing gender equity and improving individual and household well-being. The evaluation findings have policy implications for other commodity crops in emerging economies where attempts to increase smallholder productivity and incomes have met with limited success.

Full reference:

Koczberski, G., Koia, M., Hamago, M., Nake, S. & Curry G.N. (2022). Improving Women’s Access to Cash Crop Income in Papua New Guinea. A Gender-inclusive Extension Initiative from the Oil Palm Industry: The Mama Lus Frut Scheme. Pacific Livelihoods Research Group, Curtin University, Perth.