By MALUM NALU
AS you’re driving out of Port Moresby, at 9-Mile, you notice the white dome-like buildings on your left.
It’s all space-age stuff out of a sci-fi movie.
This is the 9-Mile Farm, believe it or not, which is feeding the city of Port Moresby.
Inside the buildings, a green revolution is taking place, which is transforming agriculture in this country.
Indeed a brave new world.
Different varieties of fruits and vegetables are grown here and supplied to the supermarkets of the city.
It’s all about import replacement.
This is hydroponics technology used by Israeli company, Innovative Agro Industry, the same employed by that country to grow strawberries in the desert.
Up the road at 14-Mile, in another first for PNG, the company operates the first large-scale commercial dairy.
The company’s business development manager Gallit Tamir shows me around the farm on Monday morning.
I’m amazed at the technology used, and the young Papua New Guinean woman graduates now pioneering hydroponics in the country.
All the more because I live just down the road at 8-Mile, however, have not visited the farm since it started operations in 2012.
Tamir tells me the farm started then through the support of PNG Sustainable Development Program (PNGSDP), which uses funds from the Ok Tedi mine to support projects around the country.
“Innovative Agro Industry has 51 shares in the project,” she says.
“The other two partners are Halfway House, who are also the landowners and the Western Highlands Development Corporation with 24.5 per cent each.
“They received a grant from the PNGSDP to operate this and we put our equity in.
“It’s a very good partnership that is working with very good cooperation since day one.
“There’re about 11 hectares in the farm.
“Around six (ha) are for production to have main office, logistics, and packing house.”
Tamir emphasises the farm is all about import replacement.
“When we came in in 2011, we saw prices that were just unrealistic,” she recalls.
“A kilo of tomatoes was K42, capsicum was sold for up to K65 a kilo.
“Cucumbers and cherry tomatoes hardly existed on the shelves.
“Lettuce and everything else was imported for very high prices.
“This is more of a city project, a commercial project.
“We employ about 120 people, one farm manager, seven university graduates who are building up their mid-management.
“The idea is simple: We have our own nursery here, we have eight greenhouses and one net house, one open field.
“The idea is to create a climate-controlled environment to protect the plants and give them better conditions to grow.
“We do it on hydroponics, but not hydroponics using running water, but disconnected (from natural soil) material.
“We have drip irrigation systems throughout the whole farm, we use greenhouses, we use fertigation which is fertiliser and irrigation together.
“Our fertiliser is in the water and not given separately.
“It’s an Israeli technique which is exactly the same way as done in Israel in the desert, in the north, everywhere.
“We implement it here.
“It’s exactly the same as hi-tech farms in Israel.”
Tamir beams with pride as she tells of how the farm is giving employment to the surrounding communities in an area once notorious for crime.
“We have 120 employees, as I said, with the majority being women,” she says.
“Most of them are from the settlements around.
“We are the biggest employer in the area.
“A lot of them grew up with us, being here from day one of the project.
“We’re very proud of them because they operate the place.
“This knowledge is new to PNG so of course you have to train.
“We really truly believe that in a couple of years down the line, we will have people here who’ve been working with us for a long time, who will have the experience to manage it on their own.
“You will meet amazing graduates we have here and see their level of knowledge.”
The farm has spread its wings and now supplies not only Port Moresby supermarkets, but the country as well.
“We supply to all the big supermarkets in Port Moresby, catering, restaurants, hotels,” Tamir says.
“Some of the resource sector also buys from us and fly it over to their camps.
“You name it, we supply.
“We also supply some to the open market.
“We try to reach and supply to everywhere.
“I think the biggest achievement of this project is the fact that we reduced prices and made it affordable.
“This is basic food, vegetables.
“It’s a healthy thing that people need every day.
“The quantity, quality and consistency has also changed.
“I think it’s opened people’s minds to local production: Understanding that local production can be better than imports because of the quality, consistency and quantity.
“Without compromising anything along the way, they can have a better product if they buy from here.
“This project has managed to shift the way of people’s thoughts.
“We have a variety of vegetables: Tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, Lebanese and continental cucumbers, capsicum, lettuce, eggplant.
“We also do some pawpaw and herbs, watermelon, sweetcorn.
“Basically the client demands.
“If it’s already done locally and it’s done well, this is not what we’re looking for.
“We’re looking at import replacement.
“You can see in the supermakets.
“Today you pay less for much better quality.
“It’s brought down the prices significantly, from 50 to 200 per cent, depending on which item.
“You can go now to the supermarkets and see how prices have gone down.
“Tomatoes are no longer selling at K40 (per kg).
“The highest you’ll find may be K20 (per kg).
“Capsicum is available, cucumbers are available, and everything is available at affordable prices.
“I think that’s the biggest difference.”
I ask Tamir about the 2015 drought, where prices of vegetables – especially onions, potatoes and tomatoes – after former agriculture minister Tommy Tomscoll imposed a ban on imported vegetables.
“We were actually surprised, like all other people here, as we were not advised on that (ban),” she remembers. “It’s a shame because if we were advised, we would have prepared well and planted more.
“It caught us by surprise.
“It was like an overnight thing, suddenly.
“Of course, whatever we could supply, we did.
“We saw the demand for potatoes and onions.
“Everyone was shouting that they don’t have onions.
“It was the headline in every newspaper as if there were no other problems in this country.
“This actually gave us the initiative to start a farm at Sirunki in Enga, where we grow potatoes and onions.
“The majority of our products come from the local farmers.
“We bring it down to Port Moresby and sell it here as well.”
Strawberry fields in Sirunki and other exciting new projects around the country are in the pipeline for Innovative Agro Industry.
“We have some vegetables in Koroba (Hela), much of which is sold locally,” Tamir says.
“At Sirunki we have potatoes and onions already sought from local farmers, and from our farm as well, and brought down to supermarkets and all of our clients.
“We have carrots, strawberries, celery, broccoli and others coming from Sirunki.
“For 9-Mile we’re looking into extending our variety: Seedless watermelons, more sweetcorn for which there’s big demand, and keep production stable for the long-term for our clients.
“We have the Southern Highlands Vegetable Project which will start with frozen French fries.
“It’s under construction already.
“By the end of the year, it will be operational.
“The majority of potatoes for this project will come from Southern Highlands and all the provinces around.
“Basically, whatever they grow we will buy, as long as it matches the quality that we request, which we have no doubt they will, because people there are very good farmers.
“We will give them the training to reach our goal.
“We will buy everything because we will need a lot to get this factory running: About 40 tonnes a week.
“A lot of farmers will be engaged in that.
“We have the poultry project in Tabubil opening at the end of this month, we have the dairy farm at 14-Mile, we have the poultry in Tari, we have the layers in Koroba.
“We will have strawberries from Enga very soon.”
Tamir concludes: “Agriculture is about volume.
“You cannot produce small amounts every once in a while.
“You have to have the right quantities to serve the market and in a consistent way at the right price.
“Very soon we’re going to have this.”
By MALUM NALU