Microfinancing helping PNG’s Kokoda villages

By James McCormack | May 29, 2012

A clever initiative is lifting the women of the Kokoda Track, and their families, out of the cycle of poverty.

AS YOU CLIMB THEthigh-searing ascent from Madilogo, about 50km east-north-east of Port Moresby, in burning heat, in sweltering, dripping humidity, in air so thick and wet you could nearly swim through it, you wonder why she does it. Dr Genevieve Nelson, the executive director of the Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF), based in Sydney, is venturing out again. After 11 previous Kokoda crossings, you’d think she’d have had enough of this. Enough of the wearying heat and the stifling jungle. Enough of the thundering rains and the treacherous river crossings and the slick mud. Enough of the mosquitoes. Enough of the blisters, the boils and the bruises.

But as you arrive in the village of Menari, you get your answer. The welcoming ceremony commences. Kids line up and form a tunnel for her to pass through, and then shower her with flowers, followed by song after song, harmony upon harmony. The experience is poignantly beautiful. When ‘Dr Gen’, as the locals call her, addresses the village and says it feels as though she’s coming home, it seems as though she’s speaking from the heart, for experiencing something like this surely captures your soul forever. And as coming home is supposed to feel, it seems nothing has changed in Menari. There is no electricity here. The rhythms of life are slow: people wander barefoot, chooks strut under and around the stilt houses, laughter fills the air. And it remains remote; even though Menari is well connected compared with other Kokoda Track villages, it’s still five hours to the road near Madilogo.

Faole Bokoi – proud of how straight he still stands aged 84, eyes still dancing as he speaks – wags his finger emphatically as he says remoteness means little has changed here since his childhood. “The huts are still thatched,” says Faole, one of the last living ‘Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels’, a group of around 3000 local men who assisted Australian soldiers during World War II. “There is still subsistence farming, although we now eat a few white man’s foods, like rice. And there is soap. But most of the time, we still live on traditional staples.”

Faole Bokoi

During World War II, Faole Bokoi was one of the 3000 young local men who ferried supplies and ammunition to the front for the Australians. They also stretchered back the wounded, a task performed with such compassion they became known as the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. (Image: James McCormack)

But during the past decade there have been changes, and one in particular is likely to have a lasting impact. The Kokoda Track has seen an explosion in popularity. When Gen made her first crossing in 2000, there were perhaps 50 trekkers that year – but by 2008, 6000 made the 96km pilgrimage. For local men, this has offered a modest source of income; perhaps three-quarters of them can work at least occasionally as porters. The women, however, lack this opportunity. And that, specifically, is what brings Gen here for yet another week on the Track: implementing a new initiative assisting women to set up food stalls so they, too, can earn an income.

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Map: The Kokoda Track, Papua New Guinea

Helping our Papua New Guinea neighbours

Just 3.6km separates Australia’s Saibai Island, in the Torres Strait, and the PNG mainland. Our nearest neighbour is a land of great natural wealth, with abundant reserves of gold, copper, nickel, natural gas and timber. But despite these resources, worth billions, much of PNG remains desperately poor. Just over 50 per cent of school-aged children attend school, average life expectancy is 57 and many key indicators are getting worse. HIV rates are skyrocketing, and maternal mortality rates have doubled to 733 per 100,000 in the past 10 years.

In terms of the UN Human Development Index, no other nearest neighbours have a disparity greater than Australia and PNG. To combat this, Australia donates nearly half a billion dollars annually, making PNG one of the greatest recipients of our aid, along with Indonesia.

On the ground, though, given the lack of infrastructure, schools and health clinics, and the preponderance of kids with ulcerated sores and distended bellies, it’s hard to see just where all this money goes. The situation is partly the result of local corruption and mismanagement – Transparency International ranks PNG as one of the world’s most corrupt countries – but Australia itself is far from blameless. A 2010 independent review of Australian aid to PNG found, in some years, as much as 70 per cent had been spent on technical assistance. The bulk of this was spent on Australian advisers and consultants, some of whom pocketed more than $55,000 monthly. Between corruption, mismanagement and boomerang aid, rural folk are missing out.

But, argues Sydney-based social entrepreneur Creel Price, there’s an answer: the money can’t be siphoned off if local people earn it themselves. Creel, who has collaborated with Gen to establish the Kokoda Food Stalls Initiative, points to the pioneering work of Bangladesh’s Muhammed Yunus and Australia’s David Bussau, who developed staggeringly successful schemes to give poor people in developing countries small loans to start their own businesses.

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Engulfed by mountain mist, Kagi lies in one of several places where the Kokoda Track braids into multiple routes, with most trekkers walking through neighbouring Naduri instead. (Image: James McCormack)

Microfinance the key to PNG success on the Kokoda

Microfinance, believes Creel, has several clear advantages over traditional aid. It’s not that straight assistance is all bad but “if all you’re doing is giving handouts, you’re not changing the cycle,” he says. “You’re putting a Band-Aid on it rather than fixing it.”

Then there’s the greater efficiency of microfinance. Creel estimates for every $1000 donated to charity only 20-50 per cent goes to the cause, because so much more time and energy goes into raising funds then administering them. “But with microfinance,” he says, “if someone donates $1000, it revolves seven times. You lend the thousand, it gets repaid so you can lend it again. Then that gets repaid so you can lend it yet again, and so on, to the equivalent of $7000. And that’s before you take into account the number of jobs you’re creating through the increased commerce.”

As a development tool, microfinance has been successful around the world. However, for reasons not entirely clear – perhaps the endemic corruption at both high and grassroots levels, the influence of the wantok system or the especially low status of women – it hasn’t taken off in PNG.

So Creel and the KTF tweaked microfinance into micro-business, whereby village women would receive small grants instead of loans. But merely telling villagers what to do with the grants would be unproductive; it was important for locals to decide for themselves. After extensive consultation in May 2009, the KTF and the villagers determined that the best option was food stalls selling snacks to trekkers. The KTF would supply free start-up materials, implements and the initial staple ingredients; the village women would provide local ingredients and labour.

The initiative will begin with the central villages of Menari, Efogi (Efogi 1), Kagi and Naduri but the goal, says Gen, is to one day supply meals to trekkers all along the Track. The women will be in charge of operations and will decide what to do with the profits. Gen believes this is key to the project’s success – men are much less likely to spend the money on their families.

But there’s a catch, she says: “The status of women is significantly lower than that of men. So it’s a bold and somewhat controversial thing to go in and say this loan, or baking tray, or kilo of flour, is just for the use and ownership of women.”

And that’s not the only difficulty. There’s a reason Papua New Guinean restaurants aren’t ubiquitous in Australia: the staples – boiled sweet potato, taro, yams – can be charitably described as bland. So Gen created a menu appealing to western palates: pikelets, damper, guacamole with sweet-potato chips, sweet-potato soldiers and pumpkin soup, banana bread, chilli and corn fritters, and pizza. But the women have never tasted, nor even heard of these foods, let alone prepared them. Cooking classes will, necessarily, be at the core of Gen’s visit this week.

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Misty hills near the Papua New Guinean village of Menari, along the Kokoda Track. (Image: James McCormack)

Working on “Papua New Guinea time”

It seems surprising that so little research on poorer countries has been spent on attitudes to time. “PNG time”, as Gen calls it, is radically different from our own, and it’s hard to believe this doesn’t affect economic development. I muse on these thoughts two days on from our welcome in Menari. Because the villages are strong supporters of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and yesterday was Saturday, the Adventist Sabbath, classes couldn’t be held. Instead, we pushed on to Efogi where, when we met the women, it was agreed classes would start at 8am the next day. It’s now 9am and the meeting place is still empty.

Gen says it’s to be expected. Some women are at church for today’s service; others are in the gardens collecting ingredients: okari nuts, sweet potato, tomatoes, spring onions, corn, peanuts, pumpkin, chilli, eggs, citrus and avocado.”The recipes depend on local produce,” says Gen. “It encourages community buy-in, as well as making it a realistic project.”

But soon the women begin to appear. Before long a crowd collects, and smiles and chatter fill the bamboo shelter. Infants are nursed and, occasionally, a chook wanders through and pecks at the dirt floor.

Gen begins running through the handbook she will leave with the women’s group in each village. The entire process is covered step by step, starting with the business side of things: how to make a profit; reinvesting for the future; knowing your market. She stresses it’s their business; the women will own it, run it, and decide what to do with the profits. Then she continues on to cooking and soon the women are cutting and peeling and mashing, with Gen offering tips.

The women natter and giggle their way through the morning. When Gen tastes a sweet-potato soldier and reacts to the chilli, the shelter erupts into laughter. But for all the mirth, a hush descends when the women are shown something new or particularly different. When Gen hands them a rotary beater, the women view the implement with astonishment. “I’ve never seen one before,” says Janet Elodo, wide-eyed.

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Dr Genevieve Nelson, executive director of the Kokoda Track Foundation (KTF), and porters walking through the village of Old Efogi, along the Kokoda Track, PNG. (Image: James McCormack)

Despite the lack of even such simple mod-cons, Janet tells me later that life in Efogi is better than living in a bigger town. “Even though we only get little income, we never spend it. We can keep it for school fees or other important things, like soap.” But the remoteness, she concedes, is an issue. “It takes me two days to get to Port Moresby (63km away as the crow flies). It’s very difficult to sell our goods. And teachers and medical people don’t want to come here. It’s too far; they give up.”

It’s part of the reason the KTF embarked on this particular project. “We very much believe in developing a template or model that assists or empowers local communities and won’t involve us being here forever,” says Gen. “We want them to be self-sufficient, earning their own income from the trekking industry so they can pay their own school fees and have their own locally educated teachers. Often schools and aid posts close down after a couple of months when new people – maybe from the Sepik or the Highlands or Port Moresby – are posted here, because they soon leave. It might be the climate, the lack of access to bank accounts, or that they don’t fit in culturally. The community tends not to accept them and they don’t accept the community.”

By mid-afternoon, everything is cooked. The banana bread sits temptingly alongside a stack of pikelets and chilli corn fritters. But there are no trekkers to sell to. An hour passes. Then a surprising thing happens. A local man wanders up and buys a couple of items. Then five girls purchase banana bread and corn fritters. Then more arrive wanting banana bread. It’s something the Foundation hadn’t considered, says Gen; that the stalls might be a market for locals. But before villagers can buy it all, four trekkers arrive.

Perry White, from Penrith, NSW, saunters over and gains the honour of being the first trekker to purchase and sample the snacks prepared by the women. “Great!” he says, between mouthfuls. The other three members of his group come over; soon the stall has not only sold out of everything, another loaf of banana bread has been ordered, as well as a pizza. The women, of course, are beaming. “We sold all of it,” says Janet. “I’ve never received such money. I’m very happy! Now I have confidence to do it myself. We can now get together and do it ourselves. We are very proud.”

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Menari village children walk along a narrow trail in the Kokoda Track area of Papua New Guinea. (Image: James McCormack)

Papua New Guineans doing it tough along the Kokoda

On the following day, we head off early to Naduri, hopeful of teaching afternoon classes. Under an unusually crisp blue sky, we descend to the river through jungle and shafts of thick, steam-filled light. After climbing steeply to Old Efogi (Efogi 2) – the main village was established when the old ridgetop settlement ran out of space – we take a break. Nearby, a few bananas, mandarins and tamarillos have been laid on the ground to form the simplest of stalls.

It’s surprising there are so few such stalls on the Kokoda Track. In fact, the lack of commerce in general is startling. While trekkers can purchase occasional fruit and packets of Twisties, there are no shops aimed at locals, and this perhaps explains why they were so keen to try the stall food yesterday. But it also says something of the scale of the task ahead for the microbusiness project. These are people with no experience of commerce.

They do, however, have plenty of day-to-day experience of hard work. Especially the women. “Our life is very hard. Our backs and bodies hurt,” says Delmah Indiki, the wife of Naduri’s chief, Andy. In the evening, you often see homeward-bound women plodding the network of tracks; after working the garden, the women come home and cook for the family.

When I chat with Delmah about what life is like for local women, Andy does much of the answering. Certainly that is partly because his English is superior, and partly because Delmah is shy. However, you can’t help but suspect the lower status of women here is also involved. Not that Delmah accepts everything Andy says. When Delmah tells me garden work is boring, Andy counters with, “On the other hand, you could say it’s very interesting-” But Delmah interrupts, standing her ground. “No, not very interesting, it’s really boring.”

“So what’s the best thing about village life, then?” I ask. After a few words to Andy, Delmah replies, “There’s nothing good about it.” Her words are accompanied by a snicker, though, and when I press even further, she admits everyone is happy. Yet there is no escaping the fact people here want more. For Delmah, the escape from boredom is important. One of the best things about working on the cooking stalls, she says, is the chance to do something different.

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The village of Naduri, along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea. (Image: James McCormack)

Another prime motivation is earning money for school fees. When I ask Delmah what her hopes for her children are, she replies she wants them to go to school, so they can get a good job: as a doctor or a pilot or office worker. But education, relatively speaking, is not cheap in PNG. Primary-school fees along the Track range from 150 to 350 kina (about A$57-132). High-school fees are usually into the thousands. Simply put, high school for most families, and even primary school for many, is financially impossible.

There are, of course, other items the women wish to use their business profits for. They mention solar panels or generators for their churches, as well as items such as soap or dressmaking materials. They also talk about reinvesting back into the stalls. Reinvestment is actually part of the memorandum of understanding (MOU) the Foundation signs with the women’s group in each village. And the women, it seems, take the MOU very seriously. In Naduri, during a break in the class, Wampy Irido – the project officer who will remain in the villages over the coming year to offer assistance – goes through the document with the women. The chattering ceases, and so does the laughter, replaced by serious, even solemn countenances. “Even though it’s not legally binding, there’s something powerful about publicly signing this document,” says Gen. “It’s a way of letting everyone know just who’s in control of the project.”

Hope for Papua New Guinean women along the Kokoda

The remaining classes go more or less smoothly. The Naduri one is a sell-out; locals buy up everything before the trekkers even arrive. And when we return to Menari, five days on from our first arrival, there’s another sell-out. You can feel the pride radiating from the women. As usual, however, there are hiccups. The almost mandatory tardiness. Ingredients not collected. The time it takes to arrive at decisions. The lack of apparent self-driven initiative. It underscores the challenging path ahead. Not only will much depend on the women themselves; much will depend on the Australian trekking operators’ willingness to assist. And much will depend on Wampy’s ability to train the women. “It’s going to take baby steps,” says Gen. “And it’s going to take some time.”

Yet she remains optimistic about the project’s prospects. The women are clearly excited about the opportunities the stalls offer. And for Gen, despite the challenges, you feel there’s no choice anyway. “These are people who, over the past 10 years, have on many occasions quite literally saved my life. They are generous, warm and welcoming, and life for them is simple and beautiful, but really hard,” she says. “We’re trying to make some small changes to make their life a little less hard. When you see some of those changes, it makes you feel amazing.”

This article was originally published in the Jul-Aug 2011 issue of Australian Geographic (AG#103).

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