On their way to millions – The success of Samap’s Buai entrepreneurs

Posted: May 26, 2012 in Culture and traditions, Informal sector, National Goals and Directive Principles, Pacific Ways, People's Economy
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Samap village in  Papua New Guinea’s  East Sepik province is like many other places in in the Country - isolated  and without  road access.  It lies  in a  tiny secluded bay facing the Bismarck sea.  The village houses stand on ancient rickety  posts  bearing  withering sago thatch roofs.

Four of the nine boats bought with buai money

A group of women and children stand  on the shore  as a fleet of  nine   fiberglass dinghies  each powered by relatively new 40 horse power Yamaha engines come into the bay.   Apart from a few men on each of the boats,   all  are void of any large cargo.

The community’s isolation  masks a transformation that has been  happening over the last   three years.  A transformation driven by a small  group of businessmen on a path to becoming self-made millionaires.

The men are returning from Madang. It’s  a trip that has just  earned the community  more than  12 thousand dollars from the sale of buai or betelnut – the fruit of the areca palm used traditionally chewed during  social gatherings.

Each month, they earn an average of   40 thousand dollars  which translates to a gross annual income of more than 400  thousand dollars which is shared amongst  the members of the community depending on how  much work they contributed.

“There are local buyers  who buy buai  from people in the village,” says Robert Mandu, the ward councilor who made  about 6 thousand  dollars today.   “We pack them in bags and sell it to Seti a businessmen  who comes from the Highlands.”

Those actively  involved in the  buai trade say it’s not just about business and making money.  They’re building on extended family relationships and supporting their clansmen and women in improving their standard of living. Robert from the Sepik and Seti  from the Highlands aren’t  related by blood but they  drew  on the  strengths inherent in both their cultures  and

reached out to others.

Brothers Henry and Robert Mandu

Every decision is  made collectively with  their elders.  Robert consults with other members of  his family.  Seti is always accompanied by an older uncle who helps him buy the buai.  The trading happens  at the  small village of  Kosakosa on the Madang – East Sepik border where Robert’s  sister lives with her husband.

Over three years, Seti and  Robert’s families developed  this  once tiny local trade confined  to  village consumers into an  industry  which will be worth over a million dollars  over the next 5 years.  The trade spans  six provinces and links  coastal buai growers in Samap  to the vast market of  more than a  million consumers in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

The venture began with  Henry – Robert’s older brother – who started off by selling Buai using  small 25 horsepower Yamaha engine.  Henry is a man of few words and doesn’t readily take credit for the  success of  Samap’s growing band of  young entrepreneurs. But everyone knows his actions speak  volumes.  For many in Samap, Henry is a visionary.

These days,  there is very little haggling over prices.  The buyers and sellers  agree on a price that is beneficial to both families.   Seti then makes direct  deposits of up to 15 thousand  dollars  for every order  into the bank accounts managed by Robert.  Each seller knows how much he or she will get per bag and how much is being  deposited.  The boat  owners are  also paid for the hire of their boats upfront.  Nobody is cheated.

Theirs is  a relationship based  on trust and constant communication.  No lawyers. No overseas consultants. No written agreements.  It’s an arrangement that  is working with little trouble.

“We’ve bought 10 boats  from our buai sales,”  says Robert.   “We are working to get a few more.

“We are in control of our own economic development. We are deciding what we want to do and how much money we want to make”

The Buai trade isn’t their only income source.  Every week,  a boat  goes to  the East Sepik Provincial capital of Wewak  loaded with bags of dried cocoa beans.  This is  another community effort that brings in a collective income of  up to 1500 dollars a week.

“We used to sell unprocessed cocoa beans to  buyers from other villages,” Robert says.   “Many of us aren’t well educated and we knew very little about cocoa prices and we used to get cheated a lot.”

Led by Henry, the people of Samap,  sought the  expertise of a relative who built them a cocoa fermentery.  This reduced the weight they had to carry into town and increased the value of their product.

What the people of Samap are doing is in vast contrast to those in the nearby villages  of Kaup and Tiring  where Malaysian  loggers are clear-felling   large areas of rainforest. They’ve been promised oil palm development as well as benefits  under a special agriculture business lease (SABL) which is currently the focus of an investigation.  So far, there’s  no hint of progress and they’re still waiting for that “development.

“We kicked  those loggers off our land. They drove their bulldozers into a wildlife management area that our fathers established,” Robert says.  “But the people of Kaup and Tiring have  taken what we rejected.  We told them but they haven’t  listened.”

After more than  three decades  since the Australian colonial administration left, Samap is still without a road link to the provincial capital of Wewak.   The road ends at the nearest mission station of Turubu which is a day’s walk from Samap.  Malaysian loggers are  pressuring leaders  of  Samap to sign logging agreements that come with the promise of  a road link.

“Those Malaysians  haven’t learned and still think we’re dumb!” says an amused  Samap elder. “How can you build a road with 500 thousand kina? We know they  only want the trees.

“Besides, what would we need a road for?  We already have what we need.”

As the Local Level Government Councilor,  Robert is the man responsible for the implementation of government policy.  But he gets no support from the provincial or national governments and he doesn’t get paid.  Yet it doesn’t bother him.

“We don’t need government handouts. We don’t need employment provided by a logging company. We’re making more money on our own.”

The important thing for them is that  they are in control and they can choose what they want.  Next month, Robert and his brothers will buy a sawmill.  This will help his community build new houses for themselves from timber harvested from their  land.

“The next time you come, these houses will be gone. We will have  posts made of sawn timber and houses that have corrugated iron roofs. People deserve to live in good houses.”

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Comments
  1. [...] more apparent than in betel nut marketing. This trade may be the prototype for a modernising and productive informal economy in PNG, notwithstanding some knotty problems connected with the consumption of buai (as distinct [...]

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