Strengthening Our Backbone

Much is written about agriculture being the backbone of our economy.  In my view this is naturally true as the vast majority of our population live in rural regions and rely on agriculture for their very subsistence. The question for me is how we strengthen the backbone, so agriculture becomes the industry that drives our development.

Our economy is dominated by the non-renewable sectors of mining, oil and gas.  Whilst it is recognised these sectors are an extremely important part of our economy and have been the main driver of our growth, we must ensure agriculture, and other renewable sectors, such as fisheries and tourism, become our main drivers.  The successful development of these sectors will ensure all our population can sustainably participate more fully in economic activities and increase our own ability to make our own choices about progressing in life.  For too long, we have all relied on the Government to provide everything.  The Government will never have the resources to look after us all; we must look after ourselves and use our best asset, our land, and move from subsistence gardening to becoming successful small businesses.

I am not alone in thinking like this.  In fact, PNG’s highest visionary document, Vision 2050, states one of our key challenges forming the nation’s strategic direction as “How do we shift an economy that is currently dominated by the mining and energy sectors, to one that is dominated by agriculture, forestry, fisheries, eco-tourism and manufacturing, between 2010 and 2050”.  I think we all want to see this happen.

The question is how?  I grew up in agriculture and believe in agriculture.  We all know agriculture.  But most of us only know it as a way to grow food for eating with anything left over sold for cash to pay for household goods and expenses like school fees.  Agriculture can be so much more than that.  When I am delivering programs or holding community awareness sessions, I am constantly asked “but where is the market?”  At the highest level, we only need to look at how much food this country imports to sustain ourselves.  It is ridiculous to think that the mining companies, who we rely on so much for our development, has to import millions and millions of kina worth of food from overseas, food we can easily produce like eggs, fish and chickens.  So, there is a market, there is a big market in this country. We must work out how to effectively provide it with consistent quality products.

We all know we have difficulty accessing these markets.  There are countless reasons why, including poor roads and bridges, poor and costly communications, lack of market information, lack of accessibility to finance, lack of experience in governance and business management, competing interests from within our own communities.  The list goes on.  Why is that international companies who are based in PNG can get products to the market, but we can’t?  When I ask people that question, the majority just say they have money and can invest.  And yes, they do have money.  But we also have money for investment in PNG.  We are not accessing it because we lack skills and the mindset to think beyond how we have always thought.

I have faith in the people of PNG.  We are beautiful and hard-working people and most of us care so much about our families and our country.  We can learn new skills and think about things differently.  But we must work together so we can build the scale of operations required to effectively meet market demands.  This is why international companies succeed.  They are smart.  They know what they need to do to effectively produce goods and services for the market at a profit.  By knowing what to do, and having the skills to do it, they can attract the money they need to invest.  So, its not just about them having the money, they have the skills and knowledge to run their business.

This is the way we can strengthen agriculture and truly make it more than just a backbone.  A skilled mind to support the agriculture backbone will enable every hard-working Papua New Guinean to grow and distribute their products to the market.  For each of them to think about what they can do to achieve more value for what they are doing.  We need to think beyond our co-operative societies and ILG’s.  We need to think about business partnerships that make us more money.  Partnerships that reduce our own cost of production and puts more money in our pocket.  Partnerships that ensure our goods are safe and of a consistent quality.  Partnerships that enable us to reach the market more effectively and benefit from higher prices.

It starts with farmers.  They can supply so much more of what we consume.  They can supply so much more of what our neighbouring countries consume.  But they must think differently.  Let’s work together to assist our farmers understand what they are missing.  Our strategies should be better than just hand outs and aid.  They should provide a hand-up and show people a different way, encouraging them to consider different options.  Let’s empower our farmers.  Let’s enable our farmers to farm as a business.

Until next month.

Warm regards
Nicole Isifu
September 2020