By MALUM NALU
AT ‘Esso Mountain’, a community living in the high hills of 9-Mile outside Lae, a cocoa revolution spearheaded by women is taking place.
It’s a tough climb from the premises of National Agriculture Research Institute (Nari) at 9-Mile, on a Saturday afternoon earlier this year, to get here.
Up here is a model community which prides itself on its law-and-order.
It started back in 1988 after a landslide disaster in the Kaiapit area of the Markham Valley, up in the Finisterre Range.
On Sept 6, 1988, a Kaiapit landslide in the upper Markham catchment killed 74 people, affected a total of 800 people and destroyed three villages and properties.
Many of the affected Markham villagers were resettled here thanks to local Yalu landlords, and over the years, this place has grown into a peaceful and thriving community.
The land here is very fertile and has sustained them for more than 30 years.
The people started off as subsistence farmers growing fruit and vegetables, with surplus sold at roadside markets along the Highlands Highway, and have recently discovered that cocoa grows very well here.
More than 100 women here, who are all members of the Awilunga Mama Agric Project, have taken to growing cocoa like ducks to water.
It’s an amazing story about how these women, with the help of PNG Cocoa Board and local cocoa exporters, have been able to transform their lives.
Local Yalu landlords have generously allowed them use of land around Esso Mountain to grow cocoa.
The cocoa they grow is then harvested, fermented, dried and sold to exporters.
The Marape Government’s Cocoa Price Support Programme – in which the women are paid K3 per kg of wet bean instead of the normal K1.40 per kg – is a bonanza for them.
There is a high cash flow in this community, with the women able to buy food for their families and send their children to school every day.
Cooperative treasurer, Margaret Bana, says the group started in 2016 when the women looked at ways of using the large tracts of arable land around Esso Mountain.
“In the past, we used to grow food around here, and take it down to 9-Mile to sell,” she recalls.
“We would spend all day at the market, however, on some days people did not buy our food.
“So, all we mothers got together and decided that we must make use of the land around here to make money, so we decided on growing cocoa.”
One of the women, Taga Tipeo, provided the initial funding to buy polybags and set up a nursery to start the business.
Tipeo says things have changed so much since those humble beginnings.
“I don’t know how many tonnes we have produced already,” she says.
“You can see for yourselves this community and the women.
“The days when the women used to carry garden food down the mountain to sell at 9-Mile Market are over.
“Now, every week, they are seeing K200-K300 from their cocoa, as compared to the past when they were only making K10 a day from the market.”
The PNG Cocoa Board provided seedlings to the women: 10,000 first, 5000 second and then 10,000.
Yalu landlord, Nathan Sakaling, gave the green light to the women to use his land to grow cocoa.
“We now have about 25,000 cocoa trees we have grown,” Bana says.
“The trees are now about five years old.”
Real business, however, only started last year for the women of Esso Mountain.
“We used to sell our cocoa to outside buyers and fermentaries,” Bana says.
“So, we started raising funds to buy our own fermentary.
“We raised close to K7,000 from a nightclub dance, and AgMark gave us a discount on materials.”
OutSpan helped the women to buy additional materials for their fermentary.
In March 2020, after the fermentary was set up, the women of Esso Mountain were able to sell cocoa to their own cooperative.
“Our first two bags were sold to OutSpan, and with the money we earned, we were able to buy more cocoa from our women,” Bana says.
“Our prices ranged from K1.20 to K1.40 per kg of wet bean.
“However, with the Marape Government’s price support, we are now able to buy cocoa for K3 per kg.”
The community of Esso Mountain – men, women and children – work together in their cocoa business.
“The price support has brought in so much happiness into the community,” Bana says.
“Since the price support was introduced, we can see that all cocoa gardens are clean, as mothers work harder.
“We also maintain a high quality of cocoa beans.”
PNG Cocoa Board CEO, Boto Gaupu, says the women of Esso Mountain epitomise the Marape Government’s empowering of women.
“The Marape Government is now focused on empowering women, and this is just one example,” he said.
“Through cocoa, we can empower our womenfolk, who now see cocoa as their employer.
“While public servants may collect their fortnightly pay, these women are also making money, through their cocoa business.”
The women of Esso Mountain is indeed a story for Morobe and Papua New Guinea on how a community can transform itself by growing cocoa.
- Malum Nalu works with the Office of the Prime Minister