Mount Hagen business leaders outline potential for Papua New Guinea’s agricultural hub


Last August, the O’Neill government announced a policy to create an agricultural ‘hub’ around Mount Hagen in Papua New Guinea’s Western Highlands Province. Business Advantage PNG asked business leaders and analysts what was needed for the region to achieve its potential.

Mount Hagen's airport will be upgraded in 2015

An upgraded Mount Hagen airport will open in 2015.

Mount Hagen is Papua New Guinea’s third-largest city, with a population of 46,250. Centrally positioned in the country’s fertile Highlands agricultural region, the city is a natural centre for agriculture.

In its 2013 Budget, the PNG Government allocated K61 million (US$22.5 million) to help establish it as an agricultural hub. Business leaders believe it has the potential to feed the country and beyond, but it is lacking critical basic needs.

According to James Leahy, President of the Western Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Industry, factors slowing development include poor roads, sanitation and marketing, and a lack of support from government.


Western Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Industry's James Leahy

Western Highlands Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s James Leahy

‘We, and the rest of the country, hear of millions of kina being pumped into Port Moresby and Lae. What about the locals in the Highlands provinces?

‘The Highlands Highway is the lifeline for our produce to get out. If the highway was good, agricultural products could flow to markets and encourage people to remain in the village and work, slowing migration to city centres, he tells Business Advantage PNG.

While a new Mt Hagen airport is due for completion in 2015, Leahy says remote airstrips need to be upgraded too, so that coffee and other crops can be flown out.

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He also wants the government to help develop micro mills in remote areas so that coffee can be shelled into green bean form and airfreighted out.

‘This would leave basically 35% of the waste product in the village, rather than freighting parchment coffee out to town to go through the same process,’ he says.

Improve crops

Economist Tiri Kuimbakul

Tiri Kuimbakul

Coffee is the top earner for the region, ‘but it needs to be marketed better,’ says Leahy.

‘Our people need to be continually taught better coffee processing practices to ensure a higher quality bean is sold to the market place. If an overall improvement in the quality can be achieved, then better prices will be obtained and passed to the farmers.

‘Replace the “bulk” mentality with a more “quality”-based mentality,’ he suggests.

‘The PNG coffee industry has been so fixated on trying to export one million bags of green bean coffee per year that they have unwittingly sacrificed it at the expense of quality and, ultimately, price.’

Lecturer and local economist Tiri Kuimbakul describes the coffee industry as ‘ailing’.

‘I say it is an ailing industry because a lot of coffee plots (both large and small holdings) are run down and neglected. A major rehabilitation and replanting exercise is necessary if the industry is to return to its heyday.’

And there are pressures on the use of land.

‘A large number of coffee trees have been uprooted to make way for food gardens, both for subsistence and for sale,’ says Kuimbakul.


Lack of modern marketing skills is also a drawback.

‘There is a great need for the establishment of an efficient marketing system for food crops,’ says Kuimbakul.

‘For those who are in food production and distribution, inefficient and high costs of transportation are major issues.’

‘Our people were born farmers, but their biggest discouragement is not having a market to sell it to,’ says Leahy.

‘Proper market research needs to be done into both the local and international markets and, most importantly, by a person who understands what they are trying to achieve.’

Leahy says it needs government financial support to be pumped through established private businesses with proven track records, which will prevent government departments dealing with ‘paper farmers’ in Port Moresby, Lae and other town centres.

Western Highlands Provincial Support Adviser Philip Angopa agrees.

Western Highlands Provincial Support Adviser, Philip Angopa

Western Highlands Provincial Support Adviser Philip Angopa

‘Airfreight is very expensive and this makes it difficult for farmers to sell their produce to Port Moresby and other main centres in PNG.

‘Due to lack of support by governments and other organisations to provide an avenue for markets, they currently only produce enough for local consumption and a small amount for sale at the Mount Hagen Market.’

Food market upgrade

Leahy believes the reputation of Mount Hagen’s food market should be exploited to draw in more tourists and be used as an advertisement for local produce, similar to marketing strategies used in Australia to promote local farm produce.

However, he says, at times the market is dirty, unsafe and unsanitary.

‘It needs better car park facilities and we need to adopt new ideas, such as the disposal of all the food waste into a recycling plant. This would produce organic compost, which could be sold back to farmers at a cheaper price and would provide a sustainable income for the market’s operations.

Tourism and agriculture

‘There is also a UNESCO World Heritage site near Mount Hagen called Kuk Early Agricultural Site,’ notes Bob Bates, owner of tourism operation, Trans Niugini Tours. ‘There is evidence there of agriculture being carried out near Mount Hagen 9500 years ago.

‘And this is one of the first, if not the first, recorded evidence of agriculture taking place on the planet. We are currently building an interpretative centre at Kuk and this will also become a tourist attraction when it is finished that will be linked to early agriculture.’

‘Locals want to not just survive, but prosper,’ says Leahy.

But to make it happen, he says, the national government needs to talk to provincial leaders and business leaders. Since last August’s announcement, he adds, there has been no feedback from government as yet.

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