Thursday, 10 April 2014

Kau kau is a key to improving livelihoods in Papua New Guinea

ACIAR Graduate Officer Rebecca McBride recently travelled to Lae, on the north coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG), to visit two ACIAR projects that are directly and indirectly looking at sweetpotato production, processing and marketing.

Sweetpotato, or 'kau kau' as it is called locally, is a key staple in PNG. It makes up 43% of the total dietary intake there. Although annual production is estimated at 3 million tonnes, only 2% of this is sold in markets. The rest is used for household consumption or fed to livestock.
Sweetpotato at the markets. They are commonly sold in piles at a set price.
Piles at the same price can vary significantly in quantity and quality.
(photos: D.Irving and C.Chang)

The first project is focused on the sweetpotato value chain and has surveyed retailers and consumers to determine their preferences and demand for product. The major focus for the project is on sweetpotato quality, which was found to be of low importance to producers, compared to quantity. The project aims to demonstrate to farmers the value of better harvesting and postharvest techniques.

The project team interacts directly with a group of women farmers and recently conducted a simple business training session with them. Some of the women admitted they hadn't previously considered costs of labour, transport and lost product when calculating their profit from selling their sweetpotatoes. After this training they were eager to learn more about how they could improve their businesses. The project leaders and their local partners are going to focus their future training on improving postharvest handling, sorting and selling sweetpotato.
Group photo - sweetpotato processing workshop
(photos: D.Irving and C.Chang)

The second project is indirectly related to kau kau, as it explores the sustainability of establishing mini feed mills at the village level. The aim is to use cheap, local feed resources where possible to maintain livestock productivity and improve farm viability. Smallholder farmers are already beginning to develop their livestock operations, including the use of commercial feeds for improved nutrition, but the high costs of imported ingredients leave them vulnerable to significant losses.

While there are few substitutes for the high protein component of these feeds, the imported sources of carbohydrate can be swapped for local sweetpotato and cassava, significantly decreasing the cost. The team are currently trialling different feeds to determine the optimum compositions for feeding fish, poultry and pigs.
Sweetpotato packaging. Bags are large and, as you can see,
can get very heavy! (photos: D.Irving and C.Chang)

These two projects have the potential to complement each other nicely. The first will train farmers to sort their product into consumer grade and unmarketable material. The second project could provide a market or value-add option for the ‘seconds’ or leftover sweetpotatoes. Both projects will improve the profitability of smallholders and semi-commercial enterprise in PNG.

P.S. We spent a week at the National Agricultural Research Institute just outside of Lae, in the picturesque Markham Valley. One meeting-free morning we drove into town and visited the local markets to look at the fresh produce including the kau kau. I certainly got a first-hand feel for the transport issues caused by local road infrastructure!

Lae, a port city, is situated at one end of the Highlands Highway, the main road connecting the highlands region to the coast, used regularly for transporting produce. I only travelled on a small section, but could understand how the road - or rather where the road itself is missing(!) - causes a lot of the produce losses during transport. Though I didn’t see one myself, I was assured you could lose whole vehicles down some of the pot-holes. The question is – are they still called ‘pot’-holes at that point?!

By Rebecca McBride, ACIAR Graduate Officer

More information:
ACIAR projects:
ASEM/2010/053 Enhancing role of small scale feed milling in the development of the monogastric industries in Papua New Guinea is led by the South Australian Research and Development Institute.

ASEM/2011/048
An integrated approach for systemic change and sustained development of the Papua New Guinea sweetpotato value chain is led by the University of New England.

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