CQU research project supports female sweet potato producers in PNG

09 May 2023

In the Metuyufa village in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, a group of ‘mama’ farmers are proudly feeding their children and building viable businesses, with support from a CQUniversity research project to improve yields and grow income.

The 5-year research project, led by Professor Phil Brown and funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), was in partnership with PNG’s National Agriculture Research Institute and worked to enhance ‘kaukau’ (sweetpotato) value chains by improving harvest quality.

That sweetpotato project, along with other ACIAR initiatives to develop galip nut and cocoa value chains in PNG and Bougainville, are also part of a CQUniversity storytelling project to capture how women farmers in PNG have been empowered through agricultural support.

CQU public health researcher Dr Cathy O’Mullan, a co-investigator on the ACIAR sweetpotato project, secured further funding to interview 13 women farmers as part of a collaborative arts-based research project.

The research team used gender-sensitive storytelling to produce short videos, a photo book, and comics about participants’ experiences. The comics were created in the local language, Tok Pisin, to help communicate with the villagers involved in sweetpotato production.

Dr O’Mullan said the research was raising awareness of the valuable contribution women small-holders make to food production and food security in PNG.

“Women are often leaders in the farming and selling of produce, and our work aims to normalise women farmers’ involvement in business and family-decision making too,” Dr O’Mullan said.

“The growth of the agriculture sector in PNG must be inclusive of women; indeed, local food security depends upon their success.”

Sweetpotato grower Veronica Sipio was interviewed for the project, and is the president of the Hagareto Farmers Association in PNG.

She says support to establish supply chains to Port Moresby had been vital.

“When we go around and sell our produce… people say this food comes from Meteyufa – it comes from the mothers,” she said.

Most of the money Veronica and her husband Joachim make from sweetpotato farming goes towards school fees for their six biological and four adopted children.

She was one of the first farmers in the region to ship sweetpotato to markets in Port Moresby and Lae, and she now helps organise other women to do the same.

Veronica said ACIAR’s sweetpotato projects had been very encouraging for women farmers in the Asaro Valley.

“Some of us had given up but (ACIAR and local partner, Fresh Produce Development Agency) came and gave us good talks and stories about budgeting and how to cook food and how to market different food and how to make money,” she said.

As well as providing an income for her family, Veronica strives to be a positive role model too.

“I want to get a nice house and I want a place where (my children) can come and relax and enjoy life and help me in the garden," she said.

“The big thing they will see is that my hard work with sweetpotato has achieved this.”

The dream of permanent housing is a strong motivator for many of the members of the Hargareto Farmers Association.

Anna Gestik, another woman interviewed for the project, grows pathogen-tested sweetpotato, developed and supplied through ACIAR programs.

“I used to sleep in a bush materials house,” she said. “When ‘clean’ sweetpotato came I made it semi-permanent and now I sleep inside.

“But I haven’t finished yet.”

Dr O’Mullan emphasized the positive impact of the project on the livelihoods of PNG women and their families. She said it was exciting to collaborate with PNG women and to help showcase their stories of success.

“Throughout this project, we heard inspiring stories of how sweetpotato is being sold as a cash crop for urban markets, and as a raw material for new products; how women cocoa farmers are building a reputation among the world’s artisan chocolatiers; and how the galip nut has been transformed from a small cash crop into a profitable new industry,” she said.

“The women have a positive view of the future and hold high expectations.”

CQU’s five-year research project, supporting commercial sweetpotato production and marketing in the Papua New Guinea highlands, concluded in 2021.

Learn more about the project here: https://www.aciar.gov.au/project/hort-2014-097