At the edge of Mt. Hagen City, Christina Agel, begins harvesting potatoes from her garden. She is one of thousands of farmers in the Western Highlands who grow food both for their families’ consumption and for sale.
About 50 meters away, Leonie Dokta, has a large cabbage patch. She makes about K400 every week if there is an oversupply at the Mt. Hagen City Market. If the demand is high she can make up to a thousand kina a week.
Only if you spend time talking to the farmers, you get to question if Papua New Guinea’s international media label – the “impoverished Pacific nation” or “South-East Asian nation” – is limited only to certain sections in Papua New Guinea.
In the Western Highlands, food security is not their primary concern. They worry more about their ability to sell the surplus food. Christina Agel says a lot of food gets wasted or sold at very low prices because there is simply too much of it.
“There is too much food. Sometimes when we can’t sell, the food rots in the ground,” she says.
Farmers in Papua New Guinea have the means to produce large amounts of food for the rest of the country primarily because of customary land that is fiercely protected. Christina and Leonie’s family owns large portions of land. Land is key to any family’s food security and economic success.
“Land is a vital asset in the Western Highlands. It is owned by the people,” says Mt. Hagen journalist, Vanessa Ripa, whose family also owns tracts of land. “Western Highlands does not have oil and gas like Hela and the Southern Highlands. Our most important resource is the land.”
Village agriculture is the biggest employer in Papua New Guinea.
Each farming family has a weekly income that exceeds the minimum wage of K330 paid by manufacturing companies and the oil palm industry. But their biggest challenge however, is the reliable linkages or the lack of it between the growers and the consumer in places like Lae and Port Moresby.
At Kagamuga in Mt. Hagen, we to speak to kaukau buyers preparing for their weekly run to Lae. The vegetable trade, is a complex, largely unsupported, yet a vital part of the Papua New Guinea economy.
Joshua Mot, a kaukau grower, says that he spends least K8,000 on transport and other costs. But he has no complaints about the amount of revenue he is able to keep. That money stays in the hands of Papua New Guineans.
“On a good month, I make about K21,000. Sometimes, I make K20,000,” he says.
The land and the vegetable trade are parts of the economy largely controlled by Papua New Guineans. But the country’s agriculture industry is smaller than it can be. Loud political rhetoric over the last 40 years has not translated to budgetary support and agricultural growth.
Two provinces away in the Eastern Highlands, Aku Kulo, provides more evidence that Agriculture needs to be supported in a big way. His villages makes about K15,000 a week exporting kaukau to Port Moresby. Aku buys kaukau from his family members and in doing so, directly injects the equivalent of four times the minimum wage into each household every week.
“After paying the farmers, I am left with a profit of K4000 every week. Sometimes, I make close to K10,000.”
His brother, Natu, built a new house with money the money that came from kaukau sales alone. The importance of the kaukau trade has long been underestimated in a country that has one of the world’s oldest agricultural sites.
With a new government in place, Prime Minister, James Marape, has announced new reforms that may transform agriculture in Papua New Guinea. Three vice ministers have been appointed to assist the agriculture minister.
But the biggest concerns for farmers is the cost of shipping and the poor state of the highlands highway.