Monday, January 28, 2013

On the ‘kaukau trail’ from Goroka

This article was first published in The National Weekender on Friday, June 25, 2013
On Tuesday last week, January 15,  I met my good mate, Goroka farmer Tom Solepa, who had just completed selling 156 bags of kaukau (sweet potatoes) at Gordon Market in Port Moresby for K150 each.
Through him, last Friday, January 18, at Gordon Market, I was able to meet some of the growers and traders involved in the intricate kaukau trade which starts in the Highlands, comes down to the port city of Lae, and is then shipped to Port Moresby.
Bags of kaukau being unloaded near Gordon Market after being shipped in from Lae.-Pictures by MALUM NALU

Solepa, a graduate economist who gave up a well-paying government job some years ago to return to the land, will use the more than K7, 000 he earned in just two days to pay school fees for his two children who are attending Goroka International Primary School.
He was very proud, as an executive of Highlands Farmers and Settlers Association (HFSA), to have brought his kaukau all the way from Goroka via Lae to Port Moresby.
“It takes courage, patience, to bring our kaukau to market,” Solepa says.
“As a person who has been trying to promote farmer issues, this gives me a lot of satisfaction.
“I want to tell our people that money is on the land.
“The returns are very good.”
Solepa, 38, from Meteyufa village outside Goroka in the Asaro Valley, says kaukau is a “winner”.
“I see the kaukau trade as a big business,” he explains.
“You bring in kaukau from rural areas to urban areas.
“In Goroka, we do sell the kaukau we grow; however, we feel that we can make better money if we sell in Lae or Port Moresby.
“We stopped growing coffee a long time ago.
“It takes us just three months to for kaukau, from growing to harvesting.
“In a year, we make four harvests.
“If we sell 60 bags, we can make up to K11, 000.”
The process, however, can be expensive, as Solepa has had to pay people to tend his gardens, harvest and bag the kaukau, carry them to roadside, road transport to Lae, sea transport to Port Moresby, and several others.
He has also had to pay for his airfares to and from Goroka.
But true to form, Solepa reaped what he sowed, and what he had earned from this latest kaukau sale will go towards the education of his two children at international school in Goroka.
“My kids are at international school so this money is for their school fees,” he said.
“I pay K5, 000 per child per term, so this money will help me a lot.”
Last Friday, Solepa took me to a house opposite Gordon Market, owned by an Eastern Highlands family, which is used as a storage facility for growers from Goroka to sell their kaukau and vegetables in bulk.
Bags of kaukau and vegetables from Eastern Highlands province being stored open-air next to Gordon Market because of lack of proper storage facilities for growers.
Woman trader, Masam Kulo, lives in Port Moresby and sells kaukau that her brother sends in from Goroka.
“When there is plenty of kaukau, we sell a bag for K120 or K130, but when there is a shortage, we sell for K150, K160, or K170,” she says.
“Our customers are from the smaller markets around Port Moresby, who buy in bulk from us and resell.
“When there is an oversupply, we make a loss.
“When there isn’t much kaukau around, we make a profit.”
Another woman trader, Rose Goiya, is blunt in her criticism of government for lack of support by way of freight subsidies and vegetable storage facilities.
“Farmers are the backbone of the nation but we get no support from the government,” she says.
“They give support to other industries but not this.
“There should be proper storage facilities and assistance with transportation in place.
“The department of Agriculture and Livestock doesn’t support us in any way.
“This is an industry with a lot of potential but there is no support from the government.”
Apart from the kaukau growers and traders, there are also those involved in vegetables.
Janet Mose buys bags of cabbages from farmers in Eastern Highlands and transports them at her own cost to Port Moresby, where she sells the cabbages wholesale to Port Moresby buyers.
Janet Mose with her bags of cabbages.

“I buy my cabbages from farmers in Goroka and I pay for the cost of bringing it over to Port Moresby,” she says.
“I pay K50 for a bag of cabbages in Goroka and sell it here in Port Moresby for K150 a bag.
“Sometimes, business is good, but at other times, the cabbages just rot away from not being bought and because of proper storage facilities.”
Patricia Koike, from Iufi Iufa village in the Asaro Valley, grows her own carrots and brings them over to Port Moresby for sale.
Patricia Koike (second from right) with her bags of carrots.
“There is no storage area so our produce can be ruined by sun or rain,” she says.
“The government should look seriously at this and set up a place for us to store our vegetables and sell in bulk.”
Pisin Benjamin, whose family lives in the house used by Eastern Highlanders as a storage area, says it was established by his late father Benjamin Tehe to help growers from their province.
Pisin Benjamin (second from left) and other family members at their house in Gordon  which is used by Eastern Highlanders as a kaukau and vegetable storage area.
In fact, it started off quite well and even had a cold storage facility, which has eventually broken down.
“My father established this facility to help the farmers of Eastern Highlands,” he says.
“This has become a wholesale vegetable shop for Eastern Highlanders.
“In 2007, we made a proposal to the Department of Agriculture and Livestock to set up a cold storage facility, however, this was not enough as there were too many vegetables coming in.
“We charge K3 per bag to store in our yard from arrival to sale.
“We have so much kaukau and fresh vegetables from the Highlands coming in
“We have 300-400 bags of vegetables coming in a week, and 400-500 bags of kaukau.
“These are sold out!”

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