Subsistence farming is a predominant livelihood for most rural communities in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the Solomon Islands.
Both countries' agriculture sectors are increasingly prone to climate hazards and have underperformed over the last 2 decades, hamstrung by chronic underfunding, declining productivity, and a lack of infrastructure and services, among other factors.
In PNG, women perform 70% of the work in agriculture, but their role is not fully recognised. In the Solomon Islands, rural female farmers continue to face barriers to accessing agricultural training, community decision-making, and economic development.
A 5-year ACIAR-supported project led by the University of Canberra is changing the approach to traditional roles by teaching families to work together as a team.
Known as the Family Farms Team (FFT) approach, the model has already proven a success in PNG and is now being trialled in the rural and remote community of Longgu in the Solomon Islands. The initiative is in partnership with local civil society organisations, Live and Learn, Kastom Gaden Association, and the Longgu District Mother's Union.
A 5-hour drive from Honiara, Longgu is only accessible by bumpy backroads and multiple river crossings. Due to the remoteness of its location, the primary employment activity is backyard farming and small-scale coastal fishing.
The FFT approach is already empowering families in the Longgu community to generate more income, eat healthier diets and foster improved gender equity through greater inclusion in planning and decision-making.
Family-oriented approach for long-term food security
Project Leader from the University of Canberra, Dr Deborah Hill, explained that the FFT approach is a family-based program of workshops that provides a platform for women and men from the same family to learn new skills and plan their future as a family unit.
Developed through ACIAR-supported research in PNG, the FFT approach successfully combines financial literacy education and agricultural planning techniques into a formal training model.
‘Solomon Islands is the first country, outside of PNG, where the FFT approach is being trialled,’ said Dr Hill.
The popularity of FFT training comes from learning that it is both improving livelihoods for farming families and addressing gender inequalities. It is also flexible enough to be applied across diverse crops, commodities, and communities.
Dr Deborah Hill
Project Leader, University of Canberra
‘The approach includes a peer learning component. When family members attend the workshops, they share what they learn with others in their families and community. The family members who attend the workshops are called ‘Village Community Educators', so their roles as educators in the community are highlighted in the program,’ Dr Hill explained.
The FFT approach consists of 4 modules: Communicating and decision-making as a family farm team; Working as a family farm team for family goals; Planning your family farm as a family team; and Feeding your family farm team.
These sessions have been led and supported by one of the key local implementors of the project, Live & Learn Environmental Education.
Dr Hill said that the partnership of the local partners has been instrumental in the success of the FFT approach.
‘Our partners, Live and Learn Environmental Education, provide WASH [water sanitation and hygiene] and financial training, and Kastom Gaden Association provides training in crop rotation, composting identification of pests, and nurseries. This training complements the FFT workshops.
‘We have linked FFT modules to agricultural, financial and water and sanitation training, as the approach is a participatory one, where the activities promote reflection or learning relevant to the day-to-day lives of a community,’ Dr Hill added.
Challenging traditional gender roles
The Country Manager for Live & Learn, Ms Elmah Panisi, said this project was close to the organisation’s heart, and there have been requests from nearby communities to replicate the project in various districts.
‘The unique aspect of this project is that it is inclusive. It doesn't target men or women, but rather the families and teaches the value of good communication which is relevant to everyone in different ways.’
‘Key constraints to more productive roles for women in agriculture include poor access to land, water, machinery, seeds and fertiliser; lack of access to credit; land pressure due to population growth; poorly developed transport systems; and educational disadvantages due to low literacy and limited access to training and extension services.’
Ms Panisi explained that the identified participants received technical training such as basic planting, harvesting, and maintaining plant and soil health and financial literacy, family values, and healthy communication training.
‘Financial training consists of budgeting, planning, investing savings and basic bookkeeping, and this was the first time most women learnt about finances.’
‘One of our most popular activities is ‘a day in the life of a Solomon Islander’. The activity uses role-play, and we get women and men to list their daily activities. In this module, the community realised that the bulk of the workload was on women, including farming, food preparation, and childcare.’
‘After the training, the community can divide the workload equally and share tasks. The activity also looks at how youths can contribute to family tasks,’ she explained.
Traditionally the roles of men and women are different in a typical Solomon Island community.
‘For making a garden, men usually clear an identified area, cut the trees, and till the soil. Women would plant and be responsible for gardening and harvesting. Men would focus on fishing. After our module on Working as a family farm team for family goals, we noticed that the men started planting and harvesting with their wives.’
‘Now they prepare the produce and even accompany their wives to market day. The community has realised that working together is beneficial as more planting is done and they have more produce, which translates to more money on market day and the family decides how to utilise the money together,’ Ms Panisi said.
Veloa family reaps the benefits of the Family Farm Teams approach
Florence Pepetua and her husband, Robert Veloa, have lived in Longgu district for over 20 years and are one of the families benefitting from the FFT approach.
‘The FFT approach has changed my family's life. I attended an information session held by the Live & Learn team and requested to learn more about FFT. They provided us with seedlings and advice on how to prepare the backyard and soil for gardening,’ she said.
Mrs Florence explained that previously their source of income was mainly fishing, and she depended on her husband to provide for the family.
‘Now I have a small garden, which is our family's main income source, and we are both breadwinners at home. We plant a wide range of root crops, vegetables, and fruits such as taro, sweetpotato, yam, tomato, pumpkin, beans, cabbage, peanut, pineapples, bananas and coconuts,’ she added.
Before the FFT training, the Veloa family's typical day would start with Mrs Veloa making breakfast, getting their daughter ready for school, and completing chores before harvesting a small amount of yam for their meals. Robert would go and fish and try and sell his catch of the day.
Thanks to the four FFT training modules, the Veloa family has a new routine that benefits them both.
‘My husband and I decide how the chores are split; this includes housework, cooking, childcare, planting, harvesting, and getting our produce ready for market day. Apart from our family life improving, through the FFT approach, we are both earning money and making a good life for our daughter and eating healthy as we have fresh vegetables on hand,’ she said.
‘Before the project, we just ate whatever we could find, and since we didn't have any vegetables, we ate tinned foods, but now we have a balanced meal, and I can see our health improving, especially my daughter, who was prone to skin diseases.’
Market days for the Longgu district are usually Thursdays and Fridays.
‘I earn about A$37 (SBD$200) on market days within the Longgu community; when the road conditions are good, and we can take our produce to Honiara, we earn about A$187 (SBD$1000).’
‘For the first time, I can manage and save money after the financial literacy training, and we have expanded our small family business. My husband is now farming poultry and selling chickens and eggs during market day. From our earnings, we are also building our house and paying our daughter's school fees.’
I am very thankful for this project; all my life, we have lived on a hand-to-mouth basis, with no concrete plans for our future, and today I am proud to be a farmer with my husband, and I can manage and save money, our lives have greatly improved.
Future plans for the Veloa family include extending their garden and increasing the variety of crops.
‘The land will always provide for us as long as we do the work. I hope to add more varieties of fruits and vegetables, and we hope our poultry business keeps growing. I advise any family to work together, and you don't need a farm to become a farmer. Our lucrative family backyard garden is a testament to that’, added Mrs Veloa.
ACIAR Research Program Manager for Social Systems, Dr Clemens Grünbühel, said that ACIAR was proud to support the FFT approach in PNG and the Solomon Islands.
'The FFT is encouraging a people-centred approach to agricultural research for development to reduce poverty with a keen emphasis on research on gendered social relations to ensure equitable development for women and men.'
'The aim is to ensure families become more effective and profitable in their farming activities and make farms more equitable for all family members. The sites in PNG have demonstrated the positive impact of the FFT approach on the economic development of women smallholders in 9 areas of PNG. We are excited to see results from the Solomon Islands,’ he added.
Dr Grünbühel added that the key to the success of the FFT approach focuses on the entire family unit, assisting farming families in planning, setting goals, communicating, and making decisions as one team.
The FFT model was first developed through ACIAR-funded research in PNG in 2012. The current research effort in the Solomon Islands is funded through the ACIAR Social Systems Research Program and is scheduled to run until December 2024.