McLay: The truth about Lae


HAIHUIE: The agriculture sector is supposed to be a government priority. What are your views on how agriculture should be developed while considering Lae’s strategic location?
McLAY: The Lae Chamber of Commerce relies on expertise and advice from our members in the agriculture sector. We assist in agriculture development where we can in recognition of how valuable it is for the country. First there is a need to link up the fresh vegetable produce from the Highlands provinces to the Port Moresby markets. Currently Lae and the local markets can only take so much of the produce. Because of logistic difficulties, the perishable produce – cabbage tomato, beans, capsicum etc – reach Port Moresby markets in a tired and withered condition because of the length of time they spend waiting for and travelling on trucks and ships. With suitable chiller facilities and properly trained staff, this time can be cut by half, and the vegetable produce will arrive to their Port Moresby destination in good condition. Last year the Minister for Agriculture (and Livestock) tried to ban the import of vegetables which ended disastrously for Port Moresby residents. We believe that if the market chain is improved, then the Highlands produce will be more than able to compete with the imported equivalents in the ever increasing Port Moresby market and future bans on imports won’t be necessary.
HAIHUIE: What are your views on why the Markham Plains have not been fully utilised and how can it be done?
McLAY: The Markham Valley has long been called the potential food bowl of PNG. This hasn’t happened for a number of reasons – land ownership problems, differing quality of soils, limited access to markets and funds to mention a few. There are however recent good signs of agriculture development in the Markham Valley that will benefit the people in a big way – the forestry plots that are linked to the Biomass Power station, the Trukai rice growing trial farms at Erap, the Mainland Holdings grain farms at Nadzab for example.
Potentially the real boost for development of the Markham Valley to Nadzab will come when the government adopts the “Lae-Nadzab Urban Development Plan” which holds the formula for the Markham Valley up as far as the Erap River. This plan lays the foundation for land owners to register their own land and then utilise it in a meaningful manner. Currently the Lae Chamber is assisting the Morobe provincial government and the Lae Urban LLG to work with NZAid to develop the Lae market into a modern market.
HAIHUIE: The closure of the Highlands Highway is an annual event of sorts that has come to be expected every time it rains heavily. Businesses in the Highlands and Lae depend on the Highway for much of their operations. What can be done to lessen disruptions to businesses and the travelling public in terms of road infrastructure?
McLAY: The lack of regular maintenance on the Highlands Highway has been a concern of the LCCI for years. The construction of the Exxon Gas Plant some six or seven years ago with the enormous quantities of infrastructure requirements that travelled along the highway just made it worse. The trucking companies now face a huge problem, with the highway breaking down at so many different points, often at one time. Regularly the highway is closed due to floods, landslides, shoulder dislodgement, bridge embankment washouts etc. Then there are the constant law and order issues, outright attacks, compensation claims and downright stealing. It really is a credit to the trucking companies that they are able to continue to operate in such a difficult and sometimes hostile condition. We are all hoping that the government’s agreement with the ADB for K3.2 billion in a 10 year rebuild and maintenance programme for the highway, will improve the standard of the highway. Maintenance is the key because you can build a road and two or three years later, it is in need of maintenance, particularly when going through this type of country.
HAIHUIE: Could you describe the importance of the Lae Tidal Basin port facility when fully operational and what this could mean for efficiencies in businesses in Lae and the national economy?
McLAY: I really don’t have any comments. The significant drop in cargo drop-off at the Lae Port due to the down-turn of the economy has resulted in the port not being as busy or under the pressure that the new port was designed to handle.
HAIHUIE: What are your views on plans to expand and upgrade Nadzab airport and its importance to business not only in Lae but other centres that may depend on this as well?
McLAY: An upgrade of the Nadzab airport is vital to business in Lae. There needs to be an alternate airport to Jackson, with a good landing strip and international facilities. Nadzab is the obvious place. Development is already moving towards Nadzab and the airports upgrading will further stimulate further development. A lot of the Nadzab development will depend on the completion of the Lae Nadzab Road, which will cater for the increase in vehicles taking advantage of this development. The LCCI is already renewing its campaign for international flights direct from Nadzab, especially Cairns in the first instance, which will make business trips direct from Nadzab a better option to travelling via Port Moresby.
HAIHUIE: Power supply is major concern for all centres in PNG. It was also a point that you raised in one of our previous interviews. What should be done to make power supply more reliable for businesses in Lae?
McLAY: PNG Power has plans to improve the power supply to the Ramu grid and to Lae. These plans include the soon-to-be commissioned power station at Munum which will generate 30MW (megawatts), the building of the Markham biomass wood chip generator, to generate 14 to 30MW, the coal-fired generator in the tidal basin area which could bring a further 30-35 MW in the next few years, and the Ramu 2 Power Station at Yonki Dam designed by Japan International Cooperation Agency to generate over 200 MW Hydro power. When all these projects are completed, there will be sufficient power for the Ramu grid, and should well cater for the current needs and the future expansions for electricity requirements.
HAIHUIE: Lae is home to large number of people moving from rural areas mainly to look for jobs. Could you comment on the progressive employment rate in Lae and its fluctuations for the past years, and what can be done to create more jobs in the private sector?
McLAY: Lae attracts job hunters from the rural areas of most provinces in PNG – the highlands, coastal, islands and Papuan. Usually these people come in waves. For example, when a new fish factory commences, they flock to Lae seeking employment. Most of these people don’t find work but manage to camp with wantoks and soon become permanent fixtures. Having no source of legitimate income, these people soon turn to crime and prostitution. We would hope that the incoming provincial politicians will look seriously at this urban settler problem. With proper planning, this inward movement of job seekers from rural areas can be controlled. But it will mean that difficult and maybe unpopular decisions have to be made. The private sector as the main employer in the city that would benefit greatly if the settler problem can be coordinated better. We would welcome the opportunity to work alongside the politicians and public servants to seek such a permanent solution.

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