Family Farm to PNG Development Bank—Story of a Didiman MURROUGH BENSON—Part Eight – PNGK June 2021
My role with the Development Bank quickly expanded to undertaking field appraisals of new loan applications for large-scale rural enterprises and regular reviews of existing facilities. Most of these properties were owned and operated by expatriates although over the years a small number of local people took on larger operations. Smallholder loans were essentially looked after by the local didiman, with support from the local Development Bank Representative where they existed.
The range of rural enterprises was quite broad. Cattle, pigs, poultry, coffee, tea, oil palm, cocoa, copra and rubber were the main pursuits but sorghum, vegetables, ginger, soya beans, cardamoms and fish farming also featured. The large rural enterprises that the Bank funded were generally well run. Some had ventured into relatively new (for PNG) areas of activity and their operations were quite extensive and, in some cases, quite complex; I’m thinking particularly of tea, which was introduced to the Western Highlands in the late 1960s and early 1970s. By the mid-1970s thousands of acres had been planted on the fertile plains outside Mt Hagen and the tea was processed in large factories on the individual estates. Coffee plantations also featured fairly prominently amongst our Highlands clientele and these were mostly quite successful operations.
The role of the Rural Officer was to visit the property and gather all the information required by the Bank’s lending staff in order to make informed decisions on whether or not to approve loans, maintain existing facilities, adjust security arrangements or repayments and so on. When at a property, therefore, it was necessary, through a thorough physical inspection and detailed discussions with the owner and/or manager, to get a good understanding of developments already undertaken, determine whether existing loan funds had been used effectively, know what was planned for the future, review past production and financial figures, prepare estimates of future performance through to a stable year-in-year-out position and collect details of all buildings, plant and equipment on the place and, later, value these. Often it was necessary to follow up with clients’ accountants to get the full financial details.
Back in the office all this information was put into the appropriate forms, which were based on those used by Australia’s Commonwealth Development Bank, and a full written report prepared.
Most clients did all they could to help convey a realistic picture of their business. Only very occasionally was cooperation not all that forthcoming. My very first field trip was an interesting introduction to some of the difficulties that could be encountered. Our initial meeting with what could politely be described as a ‘crusty’ old coffee grower provided us with some figures that didn’t appear to make a lot of sense. He also led us to believe that new labour quarters for which Bank funds had been made available were well advanced. A later inspection of the property showed us no sign of the supposed new facility. There was, however, a fairly substantial new residence under construction, no mention of which had been made in our earlier meeting with the owner. Technically, I suppose, a house could be considered a form of ‘labour quarters’ but I don’t think this is what the Bank had in mind. Later, this property sold to a successful neighbouring plantation owner and it subsequently prospered.
The spirit of goodwill that generally existed between the Bank’s Rural Officers and their clients saw our role extending beyond simply undertaking our prime role of assessing business prospects. It was not at all unusual for us to follow up on the purchase of equipment and materials or gather technical information on behalf of clients. These were, after all, the days before the Internet and other forms of sophisticated communication that we take for granted these days. I can remember, for example, spending quite a bit of time chasing up information and getting quotes on freezer facilities for a client with a large cattle property in the Jimi Valley of the Western Highlands. For other clients I recall ordering and arranging the shipping of fencing materials and rubber tapping equipment, clearing pasture seed through Customs, taking delivery of a tractor and shipping it to New Ireland and arranging a barge for the shipment of cattle from Port Moresby to a property in Milne Bay and providing advice on how the pens should be set up on board for safe movement of the stock.
The broad range of rural enterprises funded by the Bank saw Rural Officers travel to all parts of the country and much of our time was spent away from home. Travelling around the country involved a range of transport that varied widely depending on the location of the properties. Air travel was, of course, essential for at least part of the journey to the great majority of places. Once the air component was completed, though, the remainder of the journey could at times be a little more interesting, not that some flights were without their moments.
A hire car or the local Bank Rep’s four-wheel drive vehicle was fairly normal to get to places within striking distance of the major centres. More remote areas presented greater logistical challenges. One particularly good example was a copra, rubber and cattle plantation near Orangerie Bay in the Milne Bay District. The expatriate owner was looking at selling the place to his long-time bosboi (native foreman). The outward-bound journey was relatively uneventful but certainly interesting. Along with one of our Vudal graduates and the owner of the property I took an early Macair flight that called into Amazon Bay and Mamai before touching down at Baibara a little over two hours later. Then it was into a tractor-drawn trailer for the next leg. Three tractor trips and two canoe river crossings later we reached the first plantation, a distance of twelve miles having been covered in an hour. The final leg of the journey down the coast was a somewhat faster and more comfortable dinghy trip of an hour or so.
The property inspection itself was interesting too and is worth recalling here to paint a bit of a picture of what could be involved in these field trips. Our first afternoon was spent familiarising ourselves with the property by walking over it in the company of the owner and prospective buyer. We also recorded details of most of the buildings, plant and machinery. This task was completed the next morning while it was still raining heavily then it was on to counting the old coconut palms. Thoroughly soaked by the time we had finished this job we had a short break for lunch before repeating the process on the younger coconuts and the rubber trees. At night we worked out the effective areas of the different plantings using the tree spacings we had noted during the day. We now had the starting point for our crop production estimates which we would do back in the office using the yield guidelines that we had for all crops, prepared in consultation with various crop specialists in DASF.
The next day started with a tree count of the prospective new owner’s coconuts on land adjoining the property he was looking at buying. The afternoon was spent checking out the cattle on the plantation. Half way through counting them we had to start again as some had escaped from the less than secure yards. Rounding them all up again on foot took some time as there was no holding paddock for them once they left the yards. By late afternoon, though, the job was done. We worked until late at night extracting production, income and expenditure figures from the plantation records and continuing discussions with the owner and prospective owner.
The trip home was somewhat more eventful than the trip out four days earlier; the co-ordination (by the plantation owner) of the various parties involved didn’t work out quite as planned. The first leg in the dinghy was trouble free but on arrival there was no tractor and trailer waiting for us so we had to walk to the first river crossing. A canoe was there to take us across but again there was no tractor waiting on the other side so off we went by foot again. Within about twenty minutes of the second river crossing the tractor turned up so we jumped on board.
The canoe crossing of the second river went without incident but by now we were getting used to the idea of there being no tractor and trailer on the other side – and we were not surprised. After walking for about fifteen minutes, during which time we resorted to paying some villagers to carry our bags, the tractor arrived so it was full steam ahead again to the Baibara airstrip.
Things were looking good for our 1 o’clock flight back to Moresby so we settled down in the little hut on the edge of the airstrip to work on the figures we had gathered during our inspection while we waited for our plane—and waited, and waited … At 6 o’clock we went to the nearby plantation manager’s house and tried unsuccessfully for the next three hours or so to contact Moresby to find out what had become of the plane. The plantation manager gave us a bed and the next morning the plane eventually turned up and we did the ‘milk run’ back to Moresby. A day and a half at home and I was off again, this time to Mt Hagen, Lae and Wau, not nearly so eventful a trip.
Cape Rodney provided a reminder that the roads there, while generally wider and smoother than at many places in PNG, were not without their dangers. Once when visiting a rubber plantation there I saw a badly damaged Jaguar E-Type sports car outside one of the sheds. The plantation owner told me that the local didiman had come to grief a few miles down the road some months earlier. Clearly the roads there, some paved with crushed coral which could be quite treacherous after rain, were not all that suited to testing out the capabilities of high-performance sports cars.
Chartering aircraft into some of the less accessible places was not uncommon. The large cattle property, previously mentioned, in the Jimi Valley of the Western Highlands, for example, could only be accessed on foot or by air. No prizes for guessing a chartered light aircraft was the obvious choice. It was also a great way to very quickly get a good appreciation of the extent of the operation and some of the challenges faced by the owner. Inspections there usually started on horseback, to the less accessible areas, and then in the owner’s four-wheel drive vehicle.
Around Moresby the roads were generally good enough to use ordinary cars. This relative comfort was not always without its problems though. Once I had to visit a sorghum-producing property down past Kwikila so I took the Bank’s Holden sedan. The inspection went smoothly but I left for home a little later than I had hoped. As I set off dark clouds were rolling in so I hurried along to beat the rain; the Kwikila dirt roads were fairly treacherous after rain in a conventional drive car. Darkness was falling quickly and a meeting with a PMV (passenger motor vehicle) going the other way saw me slip slowly into a shallow barat (drain) on the edge of the road. The PMV from which I took evasive action was the last vehicle that evening.
The locals were all safely back in their villages by this time and I had no way of letting anyone know where I was so I spent the night in the car on the slippery roadside. Hungry and thirsty, I was glad to see daylight and before long some passing locals helped me dig the car out of the mud with our hands. The trip back to Moresby went without further incident—or so I thought. Not long after I returned the car, muddy but otherwise in good order, to its parking spot under ANG House one of the Bank’s ‘pen pushers’ told me I should have washed the car before returning it. After a night on the side of the road I think it’s fair to say I was less than impressed—and someone else looked after the mud-spattered car!
The final instalment of my PNG story will look at a new initiative launched by the Development Bank in the 1970s—setting up its own projects to establish large-scale rural ventures in less developed parts of the country—areas that were unlikely to be viable without the injection of some Government funding.