On Tuesday (27 March), we were in Ungai, Eastern Highlands province where we met Sakarias Ikio, an important, influential player in the spice industry.
Sakarias first began buying and exporting spices more than 10 years ago in Mt. Hagen. His office was located in the Kapal house in the center of town. With some donor support, he was able to build a small spice operation in the Western Highlands.
But in 2008, the Kapal house was destroyed in a fire. All his equipment accounting records and other documents were burnt.
It affected his health. He was sick for six months.
Sakarias tried reviving the industry but felt that he couldn’t do it in Mt. Hagen. The relatively long absence of extension work that he had been providing took a toll on the industry.
He then made the decision to move to the Eastern Highlands where he set up a small operation once more. Much of his extension work that reaches close to 200 farmers is done on foot and on public transport.
Last year, his group of spice farmers trading under the Spice Development Corporation began processing and packaging turmeric, ginger and chilies. They have, since, been putting their own products in supermarkets in Goroka.
Sakarias and the Eastern Highlands spice farmers are important in this story because, they are among several groups that make up Papua New Guinea’s spice industry.
Theirs is a smallholder operation that depends on farmers who grow the spices.
What is clear, is the absence of government support for the industry despite the fact that a Spice Industry Board exists in Port Moresby.
Unlike, cocoa, coffee and coconuts, spices don’t feature much in agriculture discussions, at least from my experience. There is a lot of talk about increasing export revenue but very little action.
At meetings, the phrases that have become cliché include: “PNG’s untapped agricultural potential…” “The potential is there, we just need funding…” or “…the industry is worth millions…”
Public servants peddle the same information and statistics on flashy power point presentations at gatherings, then drink coffee have lunch and forget about the farmers who are actually working to grow commodities for export.
On a hillside, John, another farmer has already planted several rows of turmeric – one of five spices grown by the group. The yellow colored spice is used as the primary coloring and flavoring ingredient in curries.
Fresh Tumeric sells for K3 per kilo. It is good income. But the farmers produce only for the local market. There is already a demand in Goroka. They have no surplus for export because their production levels are too low.
How can they create surpluses? Through external support primarily through government assistance.
“They” talk about export revenue and industries, yet there is ZERO support! Then they talk again about the ‘potential’ of agriculture and don’t do anything.
It’s a ridiculous, vicious cycle.
There is a HUGE disconnect between Port Moresby (which is dependant on the rest of the country for its food) and the farmers who actually produce the food, coffee, cocoa and spices.
Every conference about export revenue and the economy is stuck in the quagmire of the traditional cash crops that depend on large tracts of land, good roads and, of course, government support.
But what if we changed the way we do business?
Some years ago, ‘they’ talked about low volume, high value crops…vanilla, cardamom, chilies, turmeric…etc…
I guess I am seeking answers myself when I ask: Why is there no support at all for crops that are worth more than coffee, cocoa and oil palm per kilogram?
Why is there no support for low maintenance crops like spices that can grow in the same lot of land that farmers grow food?
Are we too afraid to venture outside our comfort zone? Or maybe we listen too much to overseas consultants? Or maybe the money meant for farmers is stolen in Waigani by “paper farmers?”
These are questions that need to be asked.