Cover photo: PNG Biomass employs and empowers women to drive social and economic development.
PNG Biomass is the country’s most preeminent renewable energy project in the Markham Valley near Lae. The Oil Search-owned project will generate 30 MW of clean, renewable and affordable electricity by growing and harvesting trees to fuel a biomass power plant. PNG Biomass is for Papua New Guineas, by Papua New Guineas – it puts landowners and community participation at the core of the project. This requires ongoing engagement with the local communities of the Markham Valley, which has resulted today – since the first meeting in 2011 – in a close collaboration and powerful working relationship. Project Director of PNG Biomass, Michael Henson, emphasises that serious efforts are directed to engage the local women – who are traditionally not put forward by communities as representative or spoke persons.
“We encourage women to be part of the landowner leadership team, a group of landowner representatives working closely with PNG Biomass,” says Henson. “As part of the landowner leadership team they represent the landowners in their communities and actively contribute to the delivery of the project.”
Another way in which PNG Biomass empowers women is through the introduction of an innovative opportunity for local women to create cash-crop businesses. Henson explains: “On our tree plantations we allow the local women to plant cash-crops like melons, cucumbers, pumpkins in between the rows of trees, a practice we call intercropping.”
“We benefit too, as women try to maximise their cash-crop harvest they weed the areas which is beneficial to our planted seedling trees. All crops planted by the women are theirs to sell at the local market – on a good day they make up to K200,“ says Henson.
Growing crops through intercropping can be practiced until the trees have grown tall and their canopy blocks the sunlight. On average this allows women 12 to 16 months of intercropping opportunity on a specific plantation area. As plantation establishment is sequential and spread over 16,000 hectares and constantly planted and harvested, there are always areas available for intercropping and creating a sustainable business model.
“As you can see, we take empowerment of women and gender equality in- and outside of the workplace very serious,” says Henson. “Our project in the Markham Valley has 33 staff of which 10 are women and 3 are in senior positions. We also follow a Diversity and Inclusion Policy with a strong gender focus to ‘address barriers that may impede the merit-based recruitment and advancement of national staff and women’.”
“We have a dedicated and highly effective stakeholder engagement team that engages with our communities and local women daily. This team is led by our Stakeholder Engagement Manager, Jessie Mitir, who is a fabulous female role model; she’s determined, embraces challenges, speaks up, and makes things happen,” underlines Henson. “We have asked Jessie to share her views and messages on empowering women in business.”
Before Jessie joined PNG Biomass in 2016 she was with the National Agricultural Research Institute as well as the Forest Research Institute where she was part of the fuelwood research team. At these key institutions Jessie worked on the intersection of communications and agroforestry which allowed her to develop expertise in an area that turned out to be perfectly suited to lead PNG Biomass’ stakeholder engagement department. Today as Stakeholder Engagement Manager at PNG Biomass she oversees community and government affairs, environmental and social performance, communities’ business development, and land access.
While working at the Forest Research Institute in Lae she already had a keen interest in the developments of PNG Biomass since its inception in 2010. “I always followed PNG Biomass with pride and great enthusiasm because the Forest Research Institute was part of the project’s humble beginnings and I knew this was something new and innovative,” says Jessie.
“What really attracted me to join PNG Biomass was Oil Search’s approach to working with communities. Their Community Affairs team was always at the forefront of engaging the communities in the Markham Valley to access land in order to set up demonstration and trial plots of various tree species. They also had great innovative trials, such as intercropping and clean cooking stoves, that are beneficial for women in the local communities.”
“Women need social and economic empowerment and PNG Biomass is developing strategies that can involve young women to participate in activities that will help them appreciate themselves to build an equal playing field in their society to become small to medium entrepreneurs.”
“PNG Biomass is a greener pasture for women who want to challenge their intellectual ability to reach beyond the unthinkable. We have different professional positions and the women are experts in their own fields. We have young and enthusiastic women in the business who challenge themselves every day to achieve results that they first think unachievable. It is because they are encouraged by experienced senior managers to think outside the box. Every woman working with us at PNG Biomass is a humble beginner who is writing her own story in PNG’s history in this new exciting, challenging and rewarding business of biomass energy in PNG.”
“To all young aspiring women: Create a destiny that will make your life’s journey an inspiration. Always be positive and aspire to be the best by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with your male colleagues as equals. Always have a solution when there is a problem and take every obstacle as a challenge persevering to reach your goal. Do not envy another woman because that is when jealousy creeps in, you are unique and you have your best qualities in you, so identify them and make use of them. Only when you do, you empower yourself as innovative and productive.”