By Kallee Buchanan – Queensland Country Hour
An Australian agronomist is helping farmers in Papua New Guinea transition from growing sweet potato to feed their families, to growing food to feed the nation.
CQUniversity professor of horticultural science Phil Brown has been investigating how to take the crop from garden market model to a complete integrated supply chain servicing supermarkets in the big cities.
He said sweet potato was the major energy source for most people in PNG.
“In a lot of countries around the world the cereal crops like wheat and rice are the major source of carbohydrates, in PNG it’s sweet potato,” he said.
“They have maybe up to 100 different varieties. It is their major food source, but it’s been used as a subsistence crop.
“The challenge we’re looking at is how do you convert that type of system to a more commercial system where people can make money from selling sweet potato.”
The researchers have introduced technology to enable the farmers to produce seedlings free of disease, thus increasing their productivity and allowing them to grow larger volumes of the vegetable.
“If we can produce material that is free from viruses, we can plant that material as a commercial crop.
“We’ll get higher yields and better looking sweet potato which then has a greater market appeal,” Professor Brown said.
“It will be an interesting transition to go from a subsistence system where they are just collecting cuttings from their own gardens … to actually purchasing good planting material, growing their crops and selling it into a marketplace.”
Population shift drives demand
The project, which is funded by the Australian Government through the Centre for International Agricultural Research and collaborates with the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, comes as the population in Papua New Guinea shifts from the traditionally agrarian highland areas to be more centralised in major cities.
“As population grows people are moving in to the urban centres so the potential market for sweet potato in the towns and cities is continuing to grow,” Professor Brown said.
“That’s a commercial opportunity that these small holder farmers in the highlands can take advantage of.”
New infrastructure had also encouraged growers to take part in the project, as development of roads and logistics opened up lucrative new markets in previously unreachable cities.
“The PNG government set up a highway, the Highlands Highway, from the coast all the way up to the highlands,” Professor Brown said.
“While the road’s pretty rough, it actually is a pathway where product from the highlands can make it down to the coastal city of Lae and then by boat through to Port Moresby.
“There’s now not an ideal supply chain but at least it’s possible to get product into the market.”
Working to empower women
Along with working with the farmers, who were predominantly men, Professor Brown said the project was also empowering women, who were the traditional sellers of the vegetables.
“Sweet potato production and marketing is a really good area where the women in PNG can have a major role in the decision making in the chain,” he said.
“In a culture like PNG the women often aren’t engaged in any of the key decision making and women’s lives are generally not as flash as the blokes over there.
“We’re very conscious of trying to support and empower women in the supply chains and the production systems so that we can benefit the whole family, the whole of the community.
“It’s not just a commercial focus where we try to help a few businessmen make more money.”
Bundaberg, where Professor Brown is based, is Australia’s largest sweet potato growing region which he said demonstrated how the project also played a critical role in helping Australian producers better understand of the pathogens and threats they might face.
“We’ve got an opportunity to survey for what viruses are present in the crops in PNG, and we can reasonably expect some of those viruses over time might make their way to Australia,” he said.
“We’ve also started to trial some new technology for virus detection in the field rather than having to collect samples and send them off to a laboratory.
“That technology can be used in Australia as well so when we’re doing our virus survey work in the field we’re going to be much better prepared to identify when something comes into the country or just to look at the ones we already know are here.”
Photos by Phil Brown, CQUniversity