Family Farm to PNG Development Bank—Story of a Didiman – PNGK Sept 2021
Murrough Benson—Part Nine
As early as 1970 the Development Bank recognised that in order to help promote more rapid development of the country it would be necessary for the Bank itself to become involved in initiating its own projects. Early initiatives were in the commercial field but by 1974 the Bank was starting to fund the development of 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.
My initial trip to inspect the site of the first of these proposed ventures, several thousand acres of grassland well suited to the grazing of beef cattle in the Sugu Valley south of Kagua in the Southern Highlands, provides a further example of the logistics sometimes involved in doing our job. I was joined on this trip by a livestock specialist who had been recruited by the Bank to assist with setting up large Bank-owned projects such as this. We got away from Moresby on an early flight, flying direct to Mendi, which took a bit under two hours. The next leg of the trip was in the Bank Rep’s Toyota Landcruiser, driving, via Ialibu, the two and a half hours to the small Government station at Kagua where we arrived around lunch time.
While we waited here for the local didiman to turn up with three horses he was trucking in for our ride into the valley the next day, we drove a few miles out the Sugu road to remove some logs we had been told were blocking a bridge we would have to cross in the morning. Back in Kagua late in the afternoon we borrowed some Farmer Trainees’ blankets from the agricultural station for our overnight stay with one of the kiaps who provided us with a welcome bit of floor space.
After loading the horses onto the truck early next morning we set off for the Sugu Valley. After about four hours the truck bogged, indicating that this was where the horseback leg of the trip started. The ride into the valley took a further couple of hours and we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the area, gaining a good appreciation of the extent and quality of grazing land available. Being elevated on the horses was very helpful in the long grass. We also met with the local landowners.
Late in the day we rode back to the truck, let the horses loose nearby and headed back to Kagua, a relatively quick two-hour trip in the Bank Landcruiser, arriving about 9.30 pm. The hospitality of another of the kiaps ensured a good night’s sleep.
The next morning we drove back to Mendi and, after discussions with the District Agricultural Officer, took the half-hour regular TAL flight to Mt Hagen. After visiting one of our large tea-growing clients not far out of town to follow up on some previously requested figures we got on a plane for home. As was often the case, though, a direct flight was not available so we had a three-hour trip via Goroka and Lae, touching down in Moresby a bit before 7.00 pm. All up, it had taken us the best part of two and a half days getting to and from a place in which we spent barely three hours (which was all that was needed at that stage of its development). That, however, was the nature of travelling in PNG at the time—and in many situations it has perhaps not changed a great deal since then.
My final two years with the Bank saw me take on responsibility for two large-scale cattle properties that the Bank established under the Government-supported funding arrangements. By this time the first of these projects, Sugu Bulamakau, the development mentioned above, was already in the early stages of being set up under the management of an expatriate who had been recruited specifically for the role. He lived on the property with his wife and young son but before moving there had to build their house. There was no development at all in the valley when they first went there. Labour quarters and other buildings, fencing, yards and stocking of the property followed soon afterwards, with the stock being walked in via Kagua.
The second cattle property that I had responsibility for in this role was in the Musa Valley of the Northern District. It had the business name of Yareba Bulamakau. When I became involved this project had only reached the approval stage so I had the immense satisfaction of being heavily involved in the early days of its establishment. Like Sugu, there was practically no development in the valley, just a small tin shed alongside the airstrip and a few village houses nearby. The potential, however, was immense with a vast area of good grassland and the big Musa River along one boundary. Compared with Sugu, though, it had one important advantage: there was a very good, long airstrip in the centre of the valley. Again, we recruited an experienced expatriate to manage the day-to-day operations on the ground and he and I worked closely together for some months making all the necessary arrangements to get the project off the ground.
In the course of this preparatory work, Yareba Bulamakau can take some credit for a close encounter I had with the Queen during her Silver Jubilee visit to Moresby in March 1977. I had been away all week and when I got back to the office had to dash down to Boroko to pick up something for the project. As I turned onto the main road near Six Mile in my grubby Landcruiser I was surprised to see thousands of locals lining the road. Then they started waving and cheering. I thought I’d better respond with a few waves of my own but my mind was racing: ‘What’s going on here?’ It was then that I glanced in my rear vision mirror and caught a glimpse of four police motorcycles followed by a black car with a flag on its bonnet. Suddenly I twigged: I was leading the Queen’s motorcade! I beat a hasty retreat at the next exit, trusting that my waves had been sufficiently regal for the occasion. Clearly the security arrangements for the royal visit had not extended to blocking all the minor roads joining the Hubert Murray Highway along which the Queen travelled from the airport.
Amongst many other things that were done in preparation for the start of the project, we negotiated with the Defence Force to use one of their DC3s to fly all the initial materials and equipment into Safia, the airstrip in the valley where the property was to be developed. Fuel, a generator, a slasher (for the tractor that would be brought in later), a portable sawmill, building materials, tools and a motorbike were all amongst a full payload on the first flight in. The Defence Force also made a barge available to transport the initial batch of cattle from Moresby to a landing point at Pongani, down the coast from Popondetta. Others to support the project included the New Zealand High Commission which responded favourably to our approach to donate the portable sawmill.
When the first mob of cattle was shipped to Pongani there were no unloading facilities and the barge had to anchor a little offshore. The cattle were herded into the water and had to swim ashore and be held in temporary yards when they reached land. From there they were walked into the property along a rough track, a trip that took three or four days. Of the 300 or so cattle in that first mob four had to be destroyed when they broke their legs while trying to negotiate the many fallen trees that had not been fully removed from the track by the bulldozer operator who was supposed to have left a clear path for the animals. The track was prepared properly for later drives and not one animal was lost from the 1,500 or so subsequently walked in.
As was the case with the Sugu property, the manager’s first task was to build a home on the property for himself and his wife and three young daughters. Within five years, they had managed to establish a vibrant community alongside the airstrip at Safia, including a school and aid post (both funded by the Government), slaughter house, sawmill and staff accommodation. Cattle numbers, built up from the five lots walked in from the coast after being barged there from various locations, totalled over 5,000 and beef was regularly air freighted out to Port Moresby. When they were well settled on the property, the manager and his wife ran the annual Safia races on the airstrip and people flew in from all over the country to be part of this signature event. The viability of the property was tested a few years after its establishment when DC3s were taken out of commission and the beef had to be flown to Moresby on Twin Otters. Overnight the cost of airfreighting the beef went from 5 toea a kg to 15 toea.
The model used for Sugu and Yareba proved to be very successful in bringing economic and social development to areas that would otherwise have struggled to attract the necessary investment. Extension of this project concept saw a total of five large-scale cattle properties having been developed by the Bank by 1981, making it the second largest beef producer in Papua New Guinea at that time.
Training of the local staff was always an important priority for us. As Papua New Guinea moved first to Self-Government on 1 December 1973 and Independence on 16 September 1975, and then into the post-Independence era, expatriate staff were always very mindful of the fact that one of their responsibilities was to work themselves out of a job. None of us, I’m sure, wanted to leave the country without having done as much as we possibly could to try and ensure a smooth and lasting transition to the local staff. In the previous instalment of my story I mentioned the training given to our Vudal graduates from the very early days. Across the Bank, though, similar initiatives were taken and I and others in the Rural Department played a role in this broader training by preparing and presenting various training programs.
One particular training module that I prepared covered the role of the agricultural extension officer in rural credit, providing guidance on budgeting, determining loan requirements and assessing a project’s capacity to repay the proposed loan, supported by examples based on actual case studies. At another time a joint Asian Development Bank/PNG Development Bank/Fiji Development Bank training program, ‘Development Banking for the South Pacific Region’, was developed. Along with other PNGDB staff, I spent a considerable amount of time preparing case studies and other material for use in this program. The material I prepared was later also used in a joint DASF/PNGDB training program and was also made available to other Pacific development banks.
Come September 1977 I had to make a decision as to whether or not I would take up the offer to extend my contract with the Bank. It was not an easy decision as I had thoroughly enjoyed my twelve years in PNG, including a particularly interesting and rewarding seven years with the Bank. In the end, though, I decided that it was time to put down some roots in Australia. I felt my PNG experiences had equipped me to face whatever challenges may be thrown at me—and the subsequent years proved that I was absolutely right. The opportunities and experiences that came my way in PNG really set me up for the rest of my career.
The 1970s was a time, both for me personally and the Bank generally, of great change, wonderful opportunity, challenges aplenty and, most of all, considerable achievement for the country and its people. The satisfaction that accompanied those achievements was immense. There can be no doubt that the establishment of the Development Bank in 1967 gave a tremendous boost to Papua New Guinea’s rural sector and the broader economy in both an economic and social sense.
The boost to production that came from more readily available development finance flowed directly to the borrowers and their families, whether indigenous or expatriate. In establishing its own projects the Bank also brought direct economic and social benefits to entire communities that may well have remained neglected for many more years. Regardless of the nature of the ventures, the ensuing economic development brought employment opportunities to the broader population, new skills, greater financial independence and the opportunity for improvements in health and education. Whether or not these potential gains have been fully realised or sustained over the years is open to debate. Regardless of one’s position on these questions, though, they should take nothing away from the tremendous contribution made to the rural sector by the Papua and New Guinea Development Bank, its partners and its employees of the late 1960s and 1970s.
This is the final instalment of Murrough’s story, and now they have all been combined into one book as part of our digital collection —available to view: HERE