At a rice conference in Lae some time ago, Neko Babul, a retired Air Niugini worker, stood up and spoke very strongly and passionately about growing rice and the need to reduce imports.
It was a long statement from the outspoken Morobean from Mumum village along the Lae-Nadzab highway.
While Mr. Babul expressed his thoughts to a very receptive audience, little did he know that he would have to put his words into action when he got home.
“I said to him, you don’t even have rice. Because you opened your mouth at the NARI meeting, Mr. Babul, you have to plant rice. You will not sleep,” Mrs. Babul laughs at the recollection of events that led to the rice project.
Haiveta Babul, originally from Kerema, says the plots are kept small for easy management but they have plans to expand on to the family land.
“When you plant bananas, people steal. When you plant tapioka or kaukau, rats and pigs dig it up. When you plant rice, it is difficult to steal.”
For Neko Babul, he meant every word he said. Imports should be reduced and Papua New Guinea should start exporting rice.
“We eat rice as a staple food in our diets. We sell our best produce in the markets then we go and buy rice,” he says as he stands in rain.
Mrs. Babul continues to plant the seedlings on their latest plot in the rain, as Mr. Babul continues.
She turned 60 on August 21st. She and her husband have embraced this new chapter in her lives with the vigor of youth.
“My God! 40 years of independence as we still import rice,” he adds raising both hands to the air in exasperation. “Papua New Guinea spends up to one billion kina on rice imports! ONE BILLION!
“We should be growing our own rice, increasing our level of self reliance and we should also start exporting rice.”
Rice was introduced in in Morobe over 100 years ago by early German missionaries. But it didn’t take hold as a desirable crop to plant. Probably because of the labor intensive nature of processing the crop.
Now, nearly two centuries later, there is new interest in rice growing.
Trukai industries, in partnership with Unitech and NARI has been trialing varieties which they hope will produce the yield required for sustainable commercial production.
This year, rice farmers in Markam harvested several tons of rice which were sold to Trukai industries.
The small rice farm is also being used to teach people living near the village.
“I tell you, this is a classroom. School kids stop by and ask questions and we tell them about rice. Because many know how to eat rice but don’t know what the crop looks like.
The husband and wife team plan to expand their rice farm and eventually produce between 20 and 30 bags a year which will drastically cut down their reliance on imported rice.