Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On a wing and a prayer


Paul Gilma graduated with a degree in tropical agriculture from University of Vudal (now University of Natural Resources and Environment) in 2006 but unlike his colleagues, who settled for cosy jobs in our towns and cities, he answered the call of the wild.

MAF Cessna loading coffee at Owena
 This young man from Nondugl, in the great Waghi Valley of Western Highlands province, decided long ago that he wanted to work in the undeveloped rural areas of Papua New Guinea, serving the people that time has long forgotten.
Paul Gilma (left) with a village elder in traditional clothing at Andakombi

That dream came true when, after graduation, he joined the Coffee Industry Corporation in Goroka where, with single-minded determination, he worked himself up to the position of freight surety co-ordinator.

Paul Gilma...enjoying the call of the wild
This job is not for the meek or faint-hearted, let alone the conniving “paper farmers” of Waigani, as it involves travelling to some of the most-remote and rugged terrain of PNG, where only eagles dare, to ensure that coffee from these areas - that are off the government’s radar – gets transported to market.

Coffee at rural Owena awaiting airfreight
There is so much coffee in these forgotten rural areas, estimated at 700,000 bags or almost the entire coffee production of PNG, that just rots away because there is no transport to market.
When Gilma flies in on a wing and a prayer on a tiny singled-engined Cessna 206, flown by dedicated missionary pilots from third-level airlines like Missionary Aviation Fellowship (MAF), New Tribes Mission (NTM) or Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Aviation, he is in his forte.

Coffee bags being unloaded from an MAF Twin Otter at Aiyura, Eastern Highlands
He is feted like royalty and the locals – who see outsiders only once in a blue moon – cook up a feast for him.
He spends days, even weeks, with these people, organising freight of their coffee as well as carrying out extension work as he awaits the next available flight to Goroka, which no-one knows when will arrive.
He admits that sometimes, when he is with these rural people, he breaks down and cries, as he thinks about what we people in town have.

Paul Gilma...a true champion of our rural coffee growers
“Sometimes, when I talk to these people, I break down and cry,” Gilma tells me.
“Some of these people have never been to town.
“Airplanes are the only means of transport

Coffee growers listening to Paul Gilma at Andakombi, Eastern Highlands
“We, in urban areas, have access to so many services, and yet, we still complain.
“These little people also contribute to the economy of the country, through their coffee, and yet don’t complain.
“They are my heroes, my driving force.
“Sometimes, I feel that I want to buy a plane for them, if I have the money.“When I go, they say ‘bosman bilong CIC I kam (the CIC boss is here)’, and they cook so much food for me.”

Paul Gilma teaching coffee growers about pruning at Andakombi
Gilma’s anecdotes could fill a whole book.
“Once,” he recalls, “I flew out to Owena airstrip in the Obura-Wonenara area of Eastern Highlands.
“From Owena, I walked for a day to Aziana airstrip.
“I stayed there for two days talking to farmers, walked back to Owena, and from there walked to Tainoraba airstrip.
“I came back to Owena and stayed there for three weeks, collecting data and organising farmers.
“That was the whole purpose of the trip.
“Sometime later, I flew to Simbari in Obura-Wonenara, where the MAF plane left me, and I walked with a group to Norambi airstrip.
“Another time, I went to Marawaka.
“After that, I went to Andakombi, which is on the border of Eastern Highlands, Morobe and Gulf provinces.

Paul Gilma (left) with CIC service provider Ekim Ulato at the headwaters of the Purari River
“I went there and gave them two days training in rehabilitation and post-harvest.
“I stayed at Andakombi for one week and came back in an SDA plane.
“Some of these people still go about in their traditional clothing.
“Sometimes, planes don’t even land in these areas, and as a result, coffee just rots away because there is no means of transporting it to town.”
The freight surety scheme has the fully blessing of the CIC board and is successor to the former freight subsidy scheme, which was also run by CIC.
“We identified the need to help rural growers who found it hard to transport their coffee to market,” Gilma explains.
“The programme was first started in 1999 as freight subsidy scheme.
“Back then, the government funded the programme.
“At that time, there was also the ‘Green Revolution’, and PNG Defence Force aircraft were used.
“The government subsidised 40% of total freight costs, and 60% was met by the farmers themselves.
“This was done from 1999 up to 2001, but by then, the money was not enough to cover all coffee-growing provinces in PNG, so subsidy funds were depleted, and the programme came to a halt in 2001.
“In 2002, the CIC board reviewed the freight subsidy policy, and revived it as freight surety or revolving scheme.
“Under this, there was no 60-40; growers themselves had to pay 100% of costs.
“Some farmers had the capacity to take their coffee to market, while others couldn’t.
“Under this scheme, CIC made upfront payment to third-level airlines.
“When farmers asked for assistance, we paid up front, and expected them to pay back the money.
“This is how our freight surety scheme worked.
“This was in place from 2003-2007.”
A spanner, however, was thrown into the works when airlines were not properly reporting coffee shipments, as well as farmers not wanting to pay the surety component, and the programme came to a halt in 2007.
In 2008, it was revived again under CIC’s incentives scheme, and in 2009, the full programme came under Gilma’s wings.

Paul Gilma talking to coffee growers at Simbari, Eastern Highlands
"In 2009, the full responsibility was given to me,” he says.
“We had not been very consistent in the past.
“Some farmers lost interest in the programme.
“There was no information going out to them.
“I had to start from scratch, identifying grower groups and mobilising them.
“We restarted the programme in only Eastern Highlands and Chimbu provinces, with only K200, 000.
“Since I came on board, there has been some difference, especially in volume.
“In 2008, only 23,000kg of parchment coffee was airlifted.
“In 2009, I tried my best to increase the volume, and we increased this to 53,000kg.
“Last year was about the same as we airfreighted about 50,000kg.
“We did not get any new grower groups or spread out to other provinces.”
Gilma has made a submission to the Department of National Planning and Monitoring for assistance, and K500, 000 has been approved for this year and K500, 000 for next year.
“We’re now looking at expanding to all coffee-growing provinces,” he adds.
“We want to delegate responsibilities to all provinces so farmers can access the service.
“We want to get as many growers as possible on board.
“We are also building the sustainability concept.”
Paul Gilma, one of the many unsung heroes of PNG, continues his labour of love for the forgotten rural people of this country.


  1. Anonymous12:57 PM

    Malum, thanks so much for this coverage. Tears gather in my eyes when I saw the photos on Facebook. After reading the whole article awhile ago, I poured a good volume of tears for my brother Paul Gilma. Wish him all the best. He is very young man handling what most thought was difficult securing funding.


  2. People like Paul are the true unsong heroes of Papua New Guinea, the champions of development, who shy away from the limelight like our politicians and bureaucrats.