By Joel G. Waramboi
This year PNG celebrated 37 years of nationhood. One thing that has not stopped growing ever since is our population, and in the last 10 years, our population has been growing rapidly at about 2.4% per annum, reaching 7 million people in 2012. During the same period, although there is no concrete data, our per capita gross domestic product (GDP) could have declined dramatically due to several factors like lower outputs from agricultural crops and commodities. On the other hand, the inflation rate has risen, which now sits at around 10%.
This is an alarming trend, and by 2016, the population is expected to be around 12 to 15 million. This will place huge demands on increasing food production and assuring food security for our people. Reports from the Asian Development Bank shows that the natural resources sector (agriculture, forestry, fisheries) contributes almost 70% of total cash income for people in PNG. These industries will continue to be prime movers of the local economy.
From 2014 onwards, revenue inflows are expected from the LNG project. In September last year, the then Agriculture and Livestock minister Sir Puka Temu called on the government to put some of this money into food and agriculture industries. His calling is timely, and must be supported at the political level. In 2005, the PNG Government adopted the Green Revolution and Export-Driven Economic Recovery Strategy. For the sector, this strategy was aimed at improving production and creating market demands for our crops to meet growing domestic demand, and also to seek export market opportunities.
In recent years, we have seen several vehicles that could have taken the sector forward, like the Public Investment Programme and the National Agriculture Development Plan, go by. Last year, a forum aimed at setting a roadmap for policy intervention to develop the food and agriculture sector was held in Madang. We hope this translates into tangible outcomes that can spur growth and development in PNG.
Several projects and programmes have been tried out before on tree crops, livestock, fisheries and other natural resources industries. But as far as food crops are concerned, no investments have been made. One potential food crop that requires minimal capital injection is the sweet potato (kaukau). Since being introduced nearly 300 years ago, it is now the most important food crop in terms of both production and consumption. Total annual production for PNG has been estimated at 2.9 million tonnes, with the Southern (620,000) Eastern (470,000) and Western (425,000) highlands provinces being the main producers, followed by Enga (340,000) and Chimbu (294,000).
It is a staple food, and provides 64% of the energy needs for people. Five years ago, per capita consumption was 2.2 kg/person/year, and this year, increased to 2.8 kg/person/year. One reason to explain this is that, in the last 10 years, sweet potato has been traded in increasing volumes as a cash crop in urban centres of Port Moresby, Lae, Kokopo and other centres.
There are many constraints that affect production and marketing of the crop, including soil fertility, rats (which can destroy up to 10% of the crop), poor access to roads, lack of farmer extension services, and poor post-harvest handling practices that lead to rotting, broken roots and subsequent loss in monetary value. Currently, a few ‘commercial’ sweetpotato farmers are located in the Asaro and Waghi valleys, who grow mainly for coastal urban markets.
Currently, utilisation and consumption of sweetpotato in PNG has primarily been in the form of boiled or roasted roots. There is no processing of the crop. In the past, some research and product development work was done at the PNG Unitech into products like flour, chips, crisps and composite bread. Recently, NARI successfully released sweetpotato based feeds (silage) for pigs. Experiences from Vietnam and China have shown that the crop could be highly utilized for livestock production, where it constitutes 70% of pig feeds.
Past and current R&D work on sweetpotato suggest that it can be a potential commercial crop for PNG. On-farm processing of sweetpotato could form an additional income-generating activity where a constant supply of the fresh roots and demand for processed products is secured. With government assistance, this industry can be transformed from its currently under-utilised status to a commercially viable industry.
Sweetpotato processing is increasingly being commercialized in many countries in Africa, Asia and the United States. In Australia, the sweetpotato industry is worth A$40 million annually.
There is low-cost extrusion equipment available, costing as low as $10,000 (K24,000) with production capacity of 30 kg/hour. These have successfully been used in rural communities in Vietnam, China, Peru, Kenya and other countries to make noodles, pasta, vermicelli, flakes, crackers, puffs and other products. Besides extruded foods, these communities have also used sweet potato flour for substituted biscuits, bread and scones, while fresh roots have been processed into chips and crisps.
Currently, fresh kaukau roots are sold at around K2-5 per kg in the open markets in PNG. Although there are no statistics, some rough calculations show that, if processed, the dry flour could cost as low as K0.80 per kg, providing a cheaper product compared to wheat flour. This means that, retail margins can be relatively good for entrepreneurs. Processing not only increases the utilisation and consumption, but also fetches premium prices if sold, increases cash income opportunities for people, and avoids bulkiness during handling. Sweetpotato processing technologies are relatively simple, and can be adopted easily through farmer co-operatives and women’s groups.
Generally, there appears to be a strong and all-year round demand for processed products. Changing food habits, increasing urbanisation, demographic changes and population growth are all positive factors that can make food processing a viable option in PNG.
The PNG government and all line agencies must now take a complete policy shift and focus, and realign both macro-economic and sectoral policies, and allocate funding and resources to develop the agriculture and food processing industries in the country. Alongside this, it should also invest in rural infrastructure programmes to create enabling environment that will support industry development and growth in rural communities.
We should also take a stock of what and why the industry has not developed over the many years. If past investment options (if any) have not worked, what other models and options can we try? How about setting up an organisation specifically mandated to drive development in this sector? It is about time that the food and agriculture sector takes this course to revolutionise and harness its potential to the fullest. Until and unless this is done, crops like sweetpotato will continue to be treated as poor man’s crop.
Downstream processing and value addition has the potential to benefit en masse, raise the economic value, and create market demand for local crops. It will also improve food security and cash income levels, increase trade and replace/substitute imports, thereby contributing to broad-based economic growth and improvement in the living standards of the people.