Papua New Guinea has a long history in agriculture, with archaeologists dating its origins in the country to approximately 7000 years ago. It is thought that tribes in the Wahgi Valley in PNG were among the first to grow and harvest some of the staple food crops that are valued today, such as sugar cane and banana. People in PNG still employ traditional farming techniques, although these methods are now used alongside more modern practices, in order to improve the revenue streams from agricultural products and mitigate the environmental impacts of the industry. With the overall goal of improving food security and easing reliance on imports, the agriculture sector has seen an increase in the use of technology in recent times and the country is engaging with a variety of innovative initiatives.

Technology & Farming

In an effort to improve the nation’s socio-economic climate whilst enhancing food security, nutrition and income earning opportunities for local people, the government of PNG has been taking major strides to implement a national e-agriculture strategy. With more than 80% of the population dependent on agriculture as a means of income, the e-agriculture strategy is a welcome initiative that is expected to help guide stakeholders on how to make use of opportunities through ICT. With the expansion of broadband technologies set to enter a new phase of development, including major investments in the National Transmission Network, the accessibility of ICT services is improving for smallholder farmers, further boosted by the arrival of affordable smart phones. While the benefits of the nation’s telecoms network expansion have struggled to filter into rural communities, due to high service costs, this is set to change as major network advancements in the form of international subsea cables and low-flying satellites, which should lead to reduction of connectivity costs. Historically, low disposable incomes have restricted internet usage, but the completion of the nation’s broadband backbone will act as a major catalyst for internet penetration, in turn aiding the adoption of the e-agriculture strategy. From a logistics point of view, PNG has a host of challenges that continue to disrupt supply chains. Despite these obstacles, through the combined efforts of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Telecommunication Union, the Department of Agriculture and Livestock, and the National Information and Communication Technology Authority in implementing the national e-agriculture strategy across the sector, bottlenecks should ease over the long term.

Technology is also aiding in the practical deliverance of food as well, according to David Alcock, CEO of Mainland Holdings. “Now technology enables us to deliver lower cost proteins to the people of PNG, and another three to six years should see real value added in agro-processing,” Alcock told OBG.

Going Solar

Introduced to the country around a century ago, rice has long been a staple food for PNG. Yet, as a result of limited milling technology, the crop’s role in providing income to rural communities is minimal. However, the arrival of solar-powered rice milling technology is expected to boost food security and increase revenue streams.

As a result of collaboration between the National Agricultural Research Institute, Trukai Industries, Project Support Services and PNG Women in Agriculture, with the support of the Australian-government-funded Incentive Fund, the first ever solar-powered rice milling technology project is set to be piloted in the Morobe Province from 2017 until 2019. In the past rice farming has been restricted to isolated rural areas where growers have used traditional milling techniques such as wooden tongtong mills, which are suitable for individual families but are of low quality and have limited output, making commercial production unviable. Considering the critical importance of milling in the post-harvesting of rice, the launch of solar-powered rice milling technology has the potential to greatly increase rice production and ease dependence on imported rice. The project aims to provide 30 rice growing communities with the necessary skills, knowledge and marketing acumen. The pioneering programme is well positioned to foster the evolution of the domestic rice market. Achieving these objectives will involve installing solar-powered rice processing mills and assisting with the development of market linkages, by connecting rural growers to a large-scale buyers. According to local media reports, an individual solar-powered rice mill can process 250 kg of brown rice or 100 kg of white rice per day. With no fuel costs, it would mean that the income farmers generate from a single harvest of 1 ha will cover the operating costs of the entire solution. This is a major benefit, as diesel-powered mills would be considerably more costly. Moreover, given the nation’s power gap, the mills are designed to bolster local power capacity. As such, unused solar energy could be channelled back into the community, powering rural homes, schools or hospitals.

Private Initiatives

Unclear regulation and a lack of incentives have historically hindered foreign investment in the agriculture sector. However, investment in the segment is more than worthwhile given the country’s topography and proximity to Asian markets, and despite land issues a number of private investments are beginning to take shape. As a result, the domestic vegetables market is showing notable signs of growth and continues to steadily reduce import dependency. Potential investors are also pressing policymakers to improve the business landscape, with rural progress seen as an important opportunity for the government to stimulate inclusive growth and ease the strain of urban migration. A new government in the third quarter of 2017 will likely see investment-focused agriculture policies.

Innovative Agro Industries (IAI), an Israeli-based company, is a good example of how emerging agro-markets such as PNG can benefit from the employment of advanced methods and revolutionary technologies. Since their arrival in 2011 the firm has demonstrated that despite the nation’s shortcomings in security, infrastructure and land rights, meaningful projects can be established. One such example is the completion of the “9 Miles Agro Farm” in 2012, a modern and intensive vegetable farm that aims to replace imports of tomatoes, cucumber, capsicum and lettuce with high-quality locally produced products. The company now has a number of unique farm projects nationwide, including one in Hela province producing a range of vegetables and around 12,000 eggs per day, as well as the nation’s first modern dairy farm in the Central Province, which eases dependence on milk imports.

While the IAI projects are only a handful in number at this stage, the employment of modern techniques is already benefitting local communities. In addition, the commercially oriented farms also assist in the education of surrounding villages by providing them with valuable harvesting skills. Gallit Tamair, business development manager at IAI, told OBG, “The process of farming comes naturally to locals. It is in their culture. The gap comes from their lack of knowledge about, and limited exposure to, modern techniques. The use of drip irrigations and fertilisers is an eye-opener for most local farmers.”

In The Long Run

With data consumption rapidly on the rise, fuelled by network advances and affordable smartphones, coupled with the employment of an e-agriculture strategy and an increased technology uptake, the long-term cultivation of the nation’s crops appears to be in good hands, though major obstacles still need to be mitigated in the phase ahead. Although it will take time for people to benefit from these programmes, multiple studies have proven the advantages of using ICT in conjunction with agricultural development. If environmental conditions permit and commodity prices fluctuate within reasonable boundaries, operating costs will gradually fall and yields will rise, thereby changing the agriculture business landscape into a more enticing investment environment over time.

Whilst there is still significant ground to cover regarding the implementation of technological reforms, the intention to modernise farming techniques is evident, a key component that has been absent in the past, but one that will greatly benefit the agro-industry if PNG seizes the opportunity.