Date released
05 October 2018

A major breakthrough has come in Papua New Guinea by viewing each family's agricultural work as a farm business and each family member as being part of a team. The 'Family Farms Team' approach has not only produced better farming outcomes but has also resulted in a more equitable sharing of workload.

Professor Barbara Pamphilon, project leader from the University of Canberra, has heard many heart-warming comments as a result of an ACIAR-commissioned project examining women’s business acumen in PNG.

‘My husband and I are now best friends.’ ‘I feel happier. I feel included.’ ‘For the first time in my life, I have spare money in my bag wherever I am. I feel so good about that.’

‘It was originally a project to learn how to involve PNG women more effectively in smallholder farming training,’ Professor Pamphilon explains. ‘But we soon realised we faced a number of fundamental issues.’

The first was educational: most women farmers were illiterate. There were also cultural issues, since men were seen as the people to be trained. And lastly, there were gender issues.

‘There are high rates of family-based violence in PNG, and we were conscious of avoiding further conflict for women at home. We were also aware that when women in low-income countries learnt new skills, they often worked harder and longer. The men still control the income from the women’s labour.’

Through the research, Professor Pamphilon found that women and men did not really know what each other did in a day, although they all agreed that women had a double burden of farm work and family responsibilities. As a result, Professor Pamphilon and her team decided to take what she calls a ‘family farm teams’ approach to the situation.

‘This way, we could use the talents of everyone in the family,’ Professor Pamphilon says, ‘and not burn anyone out.’

A major breakthrough came in viewing each family’s agricultural work as a ‘farm business’. Annual farm plans were drawn up to ensure that harvests would be planned to meet agreed family goals and withstand climate events. Corporate terminology was introduced: ‘husbands and wives’ became ‘company directors’.

‘It was all with a view to moving families beyond a subsistence mindset,’ says Professor Pamphilon. ‘Most PNG families are big, they often have a husband and wife, a grandparent or two, adult children, younger children, and their crops are diverse including sweetpotato, coffee or cocoa, greens, fruit, poultry and pigs, with gardens both near the house and far away. These were all what we, in the Western world, would definitely call small businesses. This shift of terms helped farmers to be proud and productive.’

The project reaped impressive outcomes. Following a pilot in East New Britain and the Western Highlands, it has since been rolled out across the country, including islands like Bougainville and New Ireland. Partnerships were forged with local organisations including the National Agricultural Research Institute, Baptist Union, Bougainville Women’s Federation, New Ireland Department of Primary Industry and Voice for Change, as well as with the Pacific Adventist University and the PNG University of Technology. 

For families, outcomes have been tangible. Many went from bush huts to having permanent houses within 18 months. Children were able to stay in school. This approach has been integrated into a major project of US$50 million recently awarded to the Fresh Produce Development Agency by the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the PNG Government which aims to reach 25,000 farming households in four provinces.

Despite some initial reservations about the program, many men were quickly won over. Not only did they see tangible outcomes for their families—permanent homes, education, clothes, increased incomes—but they felt less pressured when they were able to make decisions as a team with their wives. 

‘I always share Australian situations as part of my work because we all face gender challenges across the world,’ Professor Pamphilon says. ‘And we can learn from each other. It only took for me to explain the increased rates of male suicide among Australian farmers to underscore the importance for both men and women of working as a family farm team. A problem shared is a problem halved.’

Learn more about Examining women's business acumen in Papua New Guinea: Working with women smallholders in horticulture