Wokim sak sak
Updated: Jan 11
A visual journey... just watch and listen.
I have many more stories I'd like to share, particularly the stories shared by the women and girls who we met at Poroi 2 village and the ones working sak sak using the traditional method along the Purari river. But for now, I just wanted to leave the above visual journey to give an example of the journey I took part in over one week in the Gulf province.
I hope it ignites a feeling in you. Sometimes the images need no words or voiceover to explain, because the picture "paints a thousand words".
Below is a copy of a media release I wrote which is just the tip of the iceberg of this journey. It was made for news media, but I assure you some beautiful human stories and feature articles are to come!
Mano: “It’s a Game Changer”: PNG’s first mechanised Sago processing mill reveals potential of an under tapped natural resource
Written by Kalolaine Fainu
When asked for a response following a demonstration of PNG’s first mechanised processing mill at Poroi 2 in the Gulf Province, Mineral Resource Development Company (MRDC) Managing Director Augustine Mano replied, “It’s a Game Changer! This processing system will change how Papua New Guineans view sago, particularly in terms of the opportunity to develop SMEs across the country”.
In Papua New Guinea, a country where about 80 percent of the population relies solely on agriculture for their food and income, sago is a staple food source with more than 64 percent of people dependent on it. In Papua New Guinea’s Gulf Province there is an estimated 400,000 hectares of wild sago and 5,000 hectares of semi-cultivated sago. “Sago is everywhere across PNG and we really take it for granted”, Mano says.
Currently however, sago producers employ manual processing methods, rudimentary tools and bush materials for processing as well as dirty water from the river for washing the sago pith. This makes the production slow and laborious and further leaves it susceptible to food safety concerns. Mano says the simple technology will be transformative if it can be replicated and applied in other villages across the region and the country. “Imagine if we had these set ups in every village and worked towards making it a product for export. Just imagine the empowerment of the SME, that’s where I see the potential!”
The trial project, located in a Pawaian village alongside the Purari River in the Gulf Province, demonstrates what can be achieved when sago is produced at commercial standards using appropriate technology. The project is managed by a Women’s Association with support from Koko Nene Henaru, a community representative company, and from Papua LNG Project Operator, Total, who, despite a slowdown in operations, remain committed to developing long-term relationships with the communities within their project area.
Managing Director of the French Super Major Total, Jean-Marc Noiray, said the sago mill was exactly the kind of venture the company is looking to partner with as part of their broader plan to support a diverse range of projects that allow communities to develop opportunities that exist outside of the oil & gas ventures, with agricultural development sitting at the top of their list. “We listen very carefully to what the Prime Minister is saying and it has always struck me how much he mentions resource development, because it is our business to develop natural resources. At the same time, the main resource, the most sustainable resource in the country is agriculture. So I am very proud that we have been able to demonstrate, I hope, that we can contribute to both.”
Total has provided assistance with resources, materials and logistical support to help get the pilot project up and running, but emphasises that support will only be given with the cooperation and involvement of the communities themselves. Noiray also confirmed Total’s commitment to providing transport and logistical support which will establish a pathway to trade outside of the Gulf region. “What we wish to do is to just be the catalyst” Noiray explains, “I must really pay tribute to Oilmin and the sago project coordinator Tony Uechtritz. He is the one who has made the project possible together with the community, so we are grateful because this is exactly the kind of cooperation we want to develop.”
Anthony Uechtritz has been working in the Gulf region for the past 8 years and says that his interest in sago started from a curiosity in the wet cake product he would see for sale at markets stalls across the region. His own interest in the humble sago palm coincided with his role as project coordinator for the New Gulf Province Transport Route impact study conducted in 2018 by International Finance Corporation (IFC) in partnership with Australian and New Zealand Governments and Total E&P PNG. Uechtritz says that while travelling through the region, “it was obvious how important sago was to the lives of the people in the Gulf, and that there were potentially significant opportunities to be explored in sago processing and development.”
Under Uechtritz’s guidance, women and men from Poroi 2 village set up the mill in just three weeks, processing their very first sago log on the 19th May, yielding 439kgs of sago product. A study conducted on traditional processing in the Malalaua District by Terence Miro Laufa in 2000/2002 indicates that this milling process will be able to generate 3-4 times more product. “As it stands, it’s a fully functional sago mill that can produce up to 93 tonnes per annum” Uechtritz says, explaining that the small-holder model is one that can be easily replicated; “It’s certainly the model that works in Indonesia, most of the production is from small-holders, which is great, because the sago industry can have a wider impact”.
Uechtritz, who has been tasked to get the project up and running, says much of his drive comes from a family legacy rooted in agricultural development in PNG. “I am a fourth generation PNG-Australian, my great-grandparents essentially established agriculture in PNG and my father was a didiman; they have all done wonderful things to contribute to the development of agriculture in the country. Being the youngest of ten, and the only one working and living in PNG on a regular basis, there’s a sense of obligation to continue the family legacy, and that is what drives me”. Uechtritz says that his involvement in the sago project is underscored by the opportunity to release women and girls from the onerous and labour intensive task of manual production, which is customarily women’s work. “I have seen what the struggle is like here and I'd like to make a difference and this is my way.”
Mechanisation where it is applied will replace the arduous task of pouding, enabling young girls to attend school more regularly and allowing women more time to tend their gardens, thereby increasing the variety, quality and quantity of foods to complement the starch of sago.
“Now that the sago house is finished I am so happy.” says Eliza Jomu, chairlady for the Elk and Antelope Women’s Association. Jomu describes a typical day, which starts with the women leaving early in the morning to find a sago palm in the bush, cutting it and preparing the area where they will do the processing. “Mothers that have babies have no choice but to take their babies with them while they do this work.”
Jomu says that by the time they are 8 or 9, girls are competent sago producers, having begun to acquire their knowledge from the age of 5 or 6. Those who do attend school will join their mothers after school and work into the evening, and, if they are needed, they will miss school.
“I think about how hard the women's life is here and how this will help us. I think about the benefits like the possibility of sending our children away to school because we will be able to cover the school fees. Education is important, my big plan is for education.”
Jomu shares the excitement the women have felt since the inception of the sago project, likening their happiness to walking around on air. “We are very eager to learn the new way of making Sago. This happiness we are taking to the village. We are all talking and spreading this story.”