Bilum producers in Papua New Guinea band together to promote exports, with a hand from ITC and Australia

29 October 2015
ITC News
Increased sales to high-end fashion buyers would boost rural women’s incomes

Traditional handicraft producers in Papua New Guinea have established a marketing board to purchase and export bilum from around the country and channel revenues into higher incomes, technical training and raw materials for the women who make the hand-woven string bags.

The Bilum Export and Promotion Association (BEPA), which launched on 28 October with support from the International Trade Centre (ITC) and financial backing from the Australian government, brings together seven bilum-producing cooperatives from around the archipelago nation. Other producers will be free to join in the future.

Bilum bags of different shapes and sizes are ubiquitous in Papua New Guinean societies, used for everything from carrying shopping purchases to babies. They are made by hand, using a looping technique akin to crocheting, from natural materials such as plant reeds or wool and man-made fibres.

While bilum production remains largely informal, small-scale and scattered across the country, international demand has been growing for the brightly-coloured bags (and more recently, clothing). Over the past year, ITC has been working to connect bilum weavers, who are typically rural women, to high-end international fashion buyers. The goal is to increase their incomes and overall socioeconomic empowerment.

The new Association, which will operate on a non-profit basis, seeks to bridge the gap between these women and international buyers. It will purchase bilum either from the cooperatives or directly from weavers, paying them up front instead of leaving them exposed to long delays or non-payment risks. Over 300 weavers belong to the seven cooperatives that currently make up BEPA.
The Association will negotiate directly with buyers on price and delivery conditions, enabling them to obtain more favourable terms. It will also carry out quality checks and export-related handling such as fumigation and freight forwarding.

According to BEPA’s constitution, it will work with weavers to get them the training, capacity support, facilities, and raw materials necessary to produce high-quality bilum articles. It will also conduct marketing campaigns promoting bilum both domestically and internationally.

Both ITC and the Papua New Guinea government’s Small and Medium Sized Enterprise Corporation (until recently known as the Small Business Development Corporation) were involved during the nearly year-long process to set up the Association, though neither will be members of it.

BEPA will be headed by Sharlene Gawi, a lawyer based in Port Moresby, the nation’s capital.