Interview: Allan Bird
In what ways are provincial governors working to safeguard the economy in light of the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly regarding agriculture?
ALLAN BIRD: Limited central planning and coordination from the federal government essentially passed on much of the responsibility for managing the Covid-19 pandemic to provincial governors. These officials had to look at the quickly unfolding situation and make decisions – a challenging task, but leadership was crucial to mitigate severe risks. Provincial governors improvised, with little knowledge or preparedness for such an unprecedented event. They also had to maintain exports, and it was a real challenge to find a balance between keeping people safe and healthy, and allowing them to make a living.
How will the idea of food security change in the future, and what impact will this have on trade dynamics and self-sufficiency?
BIRD: Much of the food grown in the region is perishable, with a shelf life of around three days. Agriculture is in our nature, and the ability and resilience of our farmers to switch between crops is robust. This is our culture, and we are fortunate enough to be situated in a tropical climate where there is a constant supply of food. I do not consider Papua New Guinea to be at risk of being food insecure, especially given the country’s effective internal cross-province trade that gives us a comparative advantage.
Where are the most pressing investment needs in agriculture, and how can the climate for foreign direct investment be improved?
BIRD: International conglomerates need to rethink their ways of doing business, and perhaps the Covid-19 pandemic will be the catalyst for this change. Instead of a short-term approach that seeks to maximise shareholder value, companies can re-evaluate their metrics. In the middle of this cataclysmic event, perhaps more introspection would be beneficial. Institutions and for-profit entities should take steps to plan ahead, making contingency plans for the next pandemic or natural disaster, which is ever more likely as climate change accelerates. PNG can serve as a breadbasket for the rest of the world.
What can be done to ensure that advancements in technology translate into economic opportunities, rather than job displacement?
BIRD: Different crops need different approaches.
Grains require machinery, but cocoa, fruits and vegetables are labour intensive. The ideal scenario would be to grow technological capacity while also upskilling human capital. This would increase export receipts and improve development prospects for ancillary services. There will always be varying requirements for the array of segments throughout the value chain. PNG is ideally positioned to capitalise on investments in new technologies, as well as labour-intensive projects.
To what extent can microfinance and financial technology (fintech) extend credit to small-scale farmers and enable them to invest in technology?
BIRD: Greater access to markets and information, as well as further ICT development, would markedly improve the livelihoods of our farmers. There is a willingness on the behalf of farmers to use fintech, but widespread use will require investment and training. The country has generally been improving on these fronts with the help of micro-lending institutions such as Microbank and MiBank. If we are able to utilise data effectively – which also entails the collection of more data, more frequently – then we can invest funds more wisely to optimise development outcomes in the form of greater export receipts. This will boost real income and drive further investment in other critical areas, such as health and education.