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Challenges and opportunities in the value chain of sweet potato, Irish potato and bulb onion in PNG's Highlands areas

The efficiency of vegetable production and marketing in the PNG highlands has been of significant concern over the years. Poor efficiency and knowledge in the production, post harvest and marketing channels with inadequate marketing infrastructure and services are some of the major limitations to the levels of quality, quantity and income for a farmer. Inadequate extension and training services in all production aspects and postharvest management including poor transport infrastructure associates with high costs, poor roads, and no dedicated transport system are additional factors.

NARI is implementing a project, titled ‘Agricultural innovations for improved livelihoods in the highlands under European Union Rural Economic Development Phase 2 (EU RED2), in the highlands to help address some of the challenges. The project aims to increase access to appropriate information and training packages on new and emerging agricultural technologies for highlands farmers purposefully to accelerate income generation from agricultural produces.

A survey was conducted by the NARI-EU RED2 project team in the seven highlands province to identify prevailing production, post harvest and marketing constraints affecting the value chains of sweetpotato, Irish potato and bulb onion from production to marketing. Constraints identified through the survey directly reflect the needs of farmers, including farmer learning needs. Cross-cutting issues affecting the effectiveness and efficiency of these value chains were also part of the study.


Sweetpotato is produced at semi-commercial and commercial scale in Eastern Highlands (EHP), Jiwaka and Western Highlands (WHP) provinces. However, much of the production in Simbu, Enga and Southern Highlands (SHP) provinces is for household food security and pig feed.

Sweetpotato production is mostly constrained by infestation of pests and diseases such as sweetpotato weevil, galmite, scab and leaf miner. Moreover, farmers are disadvantaged by lack of awareness on the use of clean and healthy materials generated from the Pathogen-Tested (PT) technology and where to source these materials to optimize production. Fertile highland valleys of Waghi, Komun, Asaro and Kaugel were discovered to be densely populated. Land shortages are currently being experienced, therefore being over cultivated. Despite this, land is being leased to villagers for commercial production of sweetpotato. Overall, soil fertility issues are a result of unsustainable farming practices and continuous cultivation.

Irish potato, on the other hand is produced mostly for cash in almost all surveyed provinces. A small portion of the net production is meant for household consumption. Pests and diseases such as the Potato Late Blight (PLB), Potato Bacterial Wilt, Leaf roll, Tuber Moth, Rhizoctonia are one of the main concerns of potato farmers. Farm inputs [inconsistency in supply of agro-chemicals (fertilizers & fungicides) and equipment, counterfeit chemical product labels] and quality seed potato are related matters.

Seed potato setbacks relate to inconsistent and inadequate supply and distribution of quality seeds from certified seed potato farmers. There appears to be limited certified seed potato growers/suppliers in the surveyed region, particularly in EHP, Jiwaka, WHP and SHP, thus significantly impacting the supply of quality seeds for ware production. Enga province alone reported unavailability of local certified seed potato growers/suppliers. Lack of awareness in seed potato inspection and certification standards as well as a shortage of appropriate seed storage facilities for certified seed farmers are also an existing worry. Furthermore, and importantly, there is inadequate supply and awareness of PLB resistant varieties released by NARI. At the moment, a significant portion of potatoes produced are mostly from a small number of famers entirely involved in commercial production who are able to afford seeds, chemicals and labor.

Bulb onion however, is a new commercial crop with much of the activity concentrated in Gembogl (Simbu) and more recently in EHP, Jiwaka and Lagaip-Pogera (Enga). The recent expansion of bulb onion into Jiwaka and EHP was part of FPDA’s National Bulb Onion Expansion project. Furthermore, recent bulb onion establishments in Enga were initiated by West Enga Women in Agriculture Development Foundation with support from the Enga’s Provincial Division of Primary Industry (DPI).

Production constraints identified for bulb onion related to pest and diseases. These includes Purple blotch, Downey Mildew, Aphids and Thrips. However, inconsistent supply of farmer preferred seed varieties (Gladalan Brown), agro-chemicals, and lack of awareness on suitable varieties for commercial purpose were the issues farmers encountered. Poor pre-harvest field practices (harvesting/handling) leads to high post harvest losses associated with neck rot disease, thus market demands on quality and quantity had dropped. High post-harvest losses during transportation (physical damage) and lack of proper curing and storage facilities are additions.

In general most of the constrains were common across all the three value chain (crops), according to the survey. Furthermore, access to reliable markets through market linkage and prices offered has frequently been pointed out by farmers as a bottle-neck. It was also evident that farmers lack entrepreneurial skills, farm planning and management skills, financial literacy skills and lacking knowledge in forming corporative/groups/association.


The market potential for sweetpotato in PNG has improved significantly in recent years due to a vibrant existing informal value chain system from the increasing demand in urban centers, especially Lae, Madang and Port Moresby. High prices for rice, flour and other cereal products also influence consumer demand for sweetpotato as it is cheaper.

The pathogen-tested (PT) technology offers huge opportunities for farmers to improve tuber yield and quality. This enables access to clean sweetpotato planting materials from NARI and FPDA. Training and awareness will allow farmers to understand the essence of using clean planting materials for improved sweetpotato production in rural settings. Farmers in Hagen Central, Asaro (Daulo), Ifiyufa (Goroka) and Tambul find PT materials important in supporting food security, income and livestock feed. A group of women farmers in Minj (Jiwaka) have testified about high yields of good quality, marketable tubers.

Market diversification and processing opportunities make kaukau a staple food, animal feed (leaves/tops/roots), dried chips and starch production. Kaukau also has a huge potential for industrial uses - jam, flour, noodles, pickles and brewing of soft drinks. From NARI's research output as an ingredient, kaukau can be processed into animal feed for broiler chicken and silage for pigs. The sweetpotato silage improves digestibility of feed, maintains good growth of pig and potentially improves carcass quality and economic returns. It can be stored for up to seven months with simple equipment and at a relatively low material cost.

NARI in partnership with FPDA has been supplying disease free Irish potato (sequoia); plus blight tolerant varieties - CIP E2, CIP E11, CIP E20 and CIP E24. These were recommended for farmers after extensive screening trials for blight resistance and fungicide application for blight management, as well as undergoing pathogen-testing procedures. With improved yields, as a result of clean planting materials, farmers are now seeking markets. Furthermore, NARI also has identified fungicides for managing the Potato Late Blight disease.

Like kaukau, the market potential for Irish potato in PNG is vibrant at the informal sector and has improved significantly in recent years due to the mining boom and increased urbanization demand as a result of consumer trends which favour potato-based fast-foods and snacks. It sets a great opportunity for the farmers and the players along the potato supply/value chain.

In many urban areas, potato fries/chips are replacing traditional and staple foods like kaukau, taro and bananas, even rice, especially among the children and youths. Potato may be cooked in many ways - boiled, steamed, baked or roasted, and fried; as well as being a satisfactory component in stews, soups, and in mixtures with meats and other vegetables.

Demand for potato from coastal cities, especially Lae and Port Moresby, has increased as a result of these factors. The value chain of potato has the potential in PNG to further develop into French fries/Mashed potato in formal marketing systems and crispy chips for food processing companies. In addition, it can be a valuable starch ingredient in other food products, beverages and sweets.

With the opportunities available for the clean seed system and fungicide use, the use of high-quality seeds of robust and market-preferred varieties is obvious. The potential to increase and optimize potato productivity, simultaneously improving the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in potato-growing regions of PNG is apparent.

An opportunity exists for NARI and FDPA as partners in the potato industry to increase the number of certified seed growers and improve seed supplies. In addition, it enables the provision of training and dissemination of information on production techniques, harvesting maturity, curing and packaging/handling in transit.

Similar to kaukau and potato, the bulb onion demand throughout PNG has increased as a result of urbanization and economic growth from uncoordinated buyers (local buyers/wholesalers) and markets in major towns and cities, including mining industries. The crop has great potential to generate income for farmers and other players along the supply/value chain. Bulb onion has low perished ability, hence quality is maintained; whilst wastage is low and returns are optimized.

The demand for catering has prompted fast-food outlets, hotels, shops, institution and restaurants to buy more bulb onion. As in value addition, dried or fresh, raw or cooked; onions are a foundational part of in a variety of soups, salads, breads, and casseroles. Onion also has an important role as a medicinal herb, and is claimed to minimize high blood pressure and other heart diseases due to its favourable action on the elasticity of the blood vessel.

FPDA researchers have identified varieties giving acceptable yield in the highlands areas which are traded locally. FPDA has been strengthening capacity building and farmer empowerment through trainings conducted on agronomy, crop management, handling and quality management, book keeping and marketing; as well as arranging markets for farmers. The bulb onion project in Gembogl by FPDA and Oxfam has helped farmers improved their livelihoods and socio economic needs from the crop’s returns.

NARI has wide experience in sweet potato and Irish potato research in PNG highlands. Research and development work on bulb onion by FPDA has set the pace for new innovations. Improved interventions with better coordination will help players benefit the most along the value chains of these three crops.

Story by Rodney Aku

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