Getting a fair deal for Papua New Guinea’s ‘bilum mamas’

16 June 2016
ITC News
The challenge

Traditional handicrafts created by skilled artisans often have appeal that goes far beyond the communities in which they are made. Connecting to novelty-seeking international markets for fashion and home decor can yield considerable rewards in terms of improved livelihoods in developing countries. But market awareness is an essential prerequisite for traditional handiwork to make it to international buyers. Altering products to meet international market demand might require artisans to develop new skills. And even in cases where international buyers purchase traditional crafts, it is by no means guaranteed that the people who make them – who are often women – will benefit.

Bilum from Papua New Guinea is a case in point. Used across the country for carrying everything from groceries to babies, brightly coloured, handmade bilum bags are becoming increasingly popular abroad. But the women who typically weave bilums, using natural reeds, wool or man-made fibres, often struggle to benefit financially from their craft.

Bilum production is largely informal, small-scale and scattered across rural areas throughout the sprawling multiisland nation. ‘Bilum mamas,’ as the artisans are sometimes called, routinely face long waits before receiving payment for their work – and sometimes do not get paid at all.

The response

ITC connects bilum weavers to high-end international fashion buyers with the goal of increasing their incomes and overall socioeconomic empowerment. As part of these efforts, ITC worked with bilum-producing cooperatives from around the country to set up the Bilum Export and Promotion Association (BEPA) in October 2015.

The association, which operates on a not-for-profit basis, purchases bilum bags and clothing from around the country for export. Revenues are channelled back into creating more predictable income streams for the producers. BEPA also offers technical training and raw materials for bilum mamas. It works with weavers to get them the business and design skills, capacity support, tools and materials necessary to produce high-quality bilum articles. In sum, BEPA’s role is to serve as a bridge between weavers and international buyers.

When the association was founded, Sharlene Gawi, the Port Moresby-based lawyer who became its Executive Officer, voiced hope that ‘BEPA will give bilum weavers, who have long been faceless, a face, a name and recognition for their unique skills and products.’

Both ITC and the Papua New Guinea government’s Small and Medium Enterprises Corporation were closely involved with the year-long process to set up BEPA (though, to ensure operational independence, neither became members of it).

The results

‘Bringing multiple cooperatives together achieves strength by association that will empower the women of Papua New Guinea in negotiating better prices and sales conditions with international buyers,’ explained Torek Farhadi, a Senior Adviser with ITC’s Women and Trade Programme who manages the bilum project. ‘By improving product quality and building awareness of bilum in potential export markets, BEPA will help increase international demand – and hence prices – for bilum.’

BEPA has conducted training activities in different parts of Papua New Guinea for bilum weavers, who often have not had the opportunity to receive a formal education.

A bilum school for women in the Kainantu district of the Eastern Highlands taught weavers about colour theory and choice, how to estimate production costs and times and how to use measuring tapes. A similar training school was held in Wewak, on the country’s northern coast.

The colour theory classes have been particularly popular with the weavers themselves. ‘I love making bilums but setting and choosing colours to appeal to my clients was not a strength until I met BEPA,’ said Margaret Evari, who works with the Shine Ministry cooperative in Port Moresby. She said that BEPA trainings had also opened her mind to make bilum products beyond bags.

The prospect of better business links through the association is also attractive. ‘To be part of the network of BEPA is going to be great, because we struggled to find training and the market,’ said Florence Kamel, a group leader and weaver with Jaukae Bilum Products in Goroka. ‘It’s a big stepping stone.’

As BEPA Executive Officer Gawi explained, ‘ITC makes a vital contribution with its global network and reputation in the trade arena, which has enabled us to start dialogue with potential buyers and new markets.’

By purchasing bilum either from the cooperatives or directly from their roughly 300 members – and crucially, paying up front – BEPA will protect weavers from payment delays or non-payment risks. At the other end of the value chain, it will negotiate directly with buyers on price and delivery conditions. It will also carry out quality checks and exportrelated handling tasks such as fumigation and freight forwarding.

The future

Currently, seven cooperatives belong to BEPA; the door remains open for other producers to join.

The association will conduct marketing campaigns for bilum both domestically and internationally, to boost awareness of – and demand for – bilum bags and clothing.

Since BEPA’s terms leave weavers free to sell directly to potential buyers if they so desire, it will also train them on how to negotiate sales themselves.