Ready to export: artisanal industries in Papua New Guinea


There is a multi-million kina export opportunity for PNG’s artisans, according to Virginia Bruce, CEO and founder of the mentoring consultancy Real Impact. She told the Innovation PNG 2019 conference of her experience building the business ‘ecosystem’ to reach that market.

PNG handicrafts are as distinct as the 800 tribes that inhabit the country. Credit: Cathy Wariap

Bruce said the main problem for artisans in Papua New Guinea’s rural and informal communities is market access.

‘When you are aiming to export, how do you take informal economies – which have very much a development focus – and bridge the gap all the way to sophisticated commercial markets? It is very challenging, but we are in the process of developing the ecosystem.

‘What we have found is that two worlds collide. On the commercial side, there are sophisticated markets and, on the development side, we have a long way to go towards developing the necessary value chains.’

Bruce said there is a global trend towards buying ethical and sustainable products, which favours PNG producers.

There is also fierce competition, however. She said 3.8 billion artisans across the world are looking for market access.

There are many logistical problems. Global brands, she says, find that developing the supply chains ‘is very costly and fragmented – so it is very difficult to pull this all together.’

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Real Impact first came to PNG in 2017. Because Bruce comes from a marketing background, her focus was on the ‘untapped resource’ of creativity and intellectual property. ‘We look at assets that already exist and at how to develop them.’

Bruce said her company takes an ‘end-to-end’ approach. One perspective is top-down: looking at what global demand looks like, and how that can be approached commercially. The other approach is bottom-up: looking at the supply chain on the ground.

‘We call it the “drag along economy”. Whenever we needed to provide a solution to a problem we jumped over the hurdles.’

‘We work two sides to the market. The commercial side is out-facing; the development side and capacity building is in-facing,’ she said.

Real Impact’s Virginia Bruce.

One project was producing bilums in the Southern Highlands. These were used for chairs called ‘hippy chairs’. REAL sold them to a hotel group in Spain.

‘We developed a marketing, PR and social media campaign which was called the Artisans of Papua New Guinea. We asked [the artisans if they] could make 500 bilums. They had never contemplated that before. But they self-organised: 82 women got together and, within three months, delivered the bilums to Spain.’

Bruce views capacity-building for the creative industries in PNG as a ‘work in progress’, with a three-to-five year horizon.

‘The applied learning is pretty massive. If we couldn’t get the product from Karani to Hagen for freighting I would find a guy who had a car and offer him an opportunity to join the economy we were creating – and he did. We call it the “drag along economy”. Whenever we needed to provide a solution to a problem we jumped over the hurdles.’


Bruce said to date exports have been US$200,000 (K676,000). Creative workers are co-operating across regions.

‘East Sepik and Oro provinces are co-producing one product. Trobriand Islanders are working with Southern Highlanders to produce another product. It gives the outside world another lens to see PNG through.’

She said there are many elements in developing the necessary systems to achieve commercial success – governance, financial literacy, technology, designing of logistics, sales and development.

‘There is not one piece that is not required. To get from the informal to the formal, we need to build an infrastructure and ecosystem to support them. But the communities are really impressed and happy to be engaged.’


  1. Stanley Wasi says

    How will I get in touch with Virginia Bruce. I’m on I’m looking at a concept of artefacts warehouse and financing in Papua New Guinea.

  2. I can see light with such crafts. I can set up a proper manufacturing process where we can apply quality control measures to certify these products to meet quarantine passes at international standards

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