Opinion: Ending the ‘brain drain’ in Papua New Guinea agriculture

Steve Woodhouse, Regional Manager NGI at Farmset and host of EMTV’s Farming PNG program, tells Business Advantage PNG that Papua New Guinea’s farmers are innovative and quick to learn. In the second of a two-part interview, he says it is essential to encourage more ‘movers and shakers’ to get involved in agriculture.

Steve Woodhouse with young PNG farmers. Source: EMTV

Business Advantage PNG: How savvy are PNG’s farmers?

Steve Woodhouse: They are innovative, having developed from hunter gatherers, to marginalists—people who grow a crop, use it and market the excess—to full-blown farmers. The issues that confront them now are a bit daunting. Climate change is a rather frightening scenario, and there is the whole market chain issue, especially with export commodities.

‘If it makes them a better return, the farmers will adopt new technologies.’

To understand the issues of sustainability when you have never been out of the country is difficult. Does a coffee grower in a small village in Mt Hagen understand what a German housewife in a supermarket is looking for when she buys a packet of coffee in Hamburg? Having said that, however, the farmers here can adapt and improve, often learning by what their neighbour does, in the Highlands especially. If it makes them a better return, the farmers will adopt new technologies.

Business Advantage PNG: What are the biggest cultural issues facing the sector?

PNG agriculture

Woodhouse: The biggest issue culturally has been the fact that working the land is perceived as a preserve of school drop-outs, or people who have not had a formal education. It is often anticipated that someone who is smart will end up as a public servant or in the private sector, and this has been exacerbated by a brain-drain into the mining sector.

In the television program we have done, we sought to illustrate some of the successes in agriculture, and the advantages of going back to the land, whilst underlining the importance of having ‘movers and shakers’ involved in growing the sector.

‘A lot more can be achieved when family units or communities work together.’

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Another issue is job delineation, whereby men deal with cash crops and thereby have access to money, while women do the gardening to feed their families and earn pocket money. A lot more can be achieved when family units or communities work together. In some parts of Papua New Guinea this is happening. But more needs to be done to address this issue.

Business Advantage PNG: How can culture be used to set up enterprises that function well?

Woodhouse: It is a matter of formulating policies, and proposals that can conform to the cultural norms of the area within which you are working. This is not only true of agriculture but of all development programs.

As with everything in Papua New Guinea, it varies from location to location, but examples have been set. In terms of existing projects, the New Britain Palm Oil plantation/smallholder concept of a nucleus estate seems to be appropriate and should be used as an example of the way ahead.

With the local horticultural industry, this is a little more difficult. But, where assistance is provided by the private sector with marketing, progress seems to be made. PNG farmers are adaptable and, if examples are set, they can learn very quickly.

You can read the first part of our interview with Steve Woodhouse here.

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