Taking Papua New Guinea artisanship to the world

The global handicraft market is worth US$38 billion and ‘profit-for-purpose’ enterprise REAL Impact is making sure Papua New Guinean artisans are getting their fair share. Lisa Smyth reports.

It is rare for a visitor to PNG to not walk away with a charming woven basket, or a colourful bilum or a beautifully carved timber bowl. PNG handicrafts are as distinct as the 800 tribes that inhabit the country, and the artisans who make them are as skilled and dedicated as any in the world.

But, on the global stage, PNG handicrafts are virtually unknown.

To peruse, and ultimately buy, an authentic piece of paradise you have to visit PNG. While the handmade textiles of India and the richly coloured ceramics of Morocco adorn hotel lobbies and living rooms the world over, PNG handicrafts have yet to tap into the artisan market – the second-largest employer in emerging economies behind agriculture.

‘PNG artisans are proud master craftspeople with skills that date back centuries, including weaving, carving, textiles and basketry,’ says Virginia Bruce, chief executive officer and founder of REAL Impact.

‘Globally, artisans are major contributors to the world’s fashion, textile and homewares industry; however, sustainable market access has not yet been available to PNG artisans.’

Experience

Bruce has more than 25 years of experience in branding and business development, working for the likes of Warner Brothers and the International Olympic Committee. Roughly 10 years ago she began thinking about applying her extensive knowledge of 360-degree marketing to social impact.

‘I wanted to take my commercial knowledge and apply it to the development sector,’ explains Bruce. ‘I wanted to disrupt the aid system and build a new business ecosystem to support small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) and empower communities.’

‘By helping local artisans create viable businesses we will create a real economy that is inclusive, equitable and sustainable and deals in real value and financial returns.’

And so, working with Pacific Trade Invest Australia, InnovationXchange and Pacific Rise programs, Bruce established ‘profit-for-purpose’ enterprise REAL Impact.

REAL Impact is creating a shared service platform that delivers the necessary Minimum Viable Business requirements to Pacific Island SMEs, from capacity building through to capital access, marketing, design and a retail interface.

‘The informal sector in PNG is made up of 80 per cent of the population and it is charactersied by lower and less reliable income and difficult working conditions,’ notes Bruce. ‘By helping local artisans create viable businesses we will create a real economy that is inclusive, equitable and sustainable and deals in real value and financial returns.’

E-commerce

In November, during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Port Moresby, the organisation launched its B2C e-commerce digital marketplace, Considered by Real. The website provides SMEs access to regional and global markets, and showcases ethically sourced products handcrafted by rural Papua New Guineans.

Expertly designed and with high-quality imagery and functionality, the platform sells a range of products that many Papua New Guineans would find in abundance at their local market at a premium price. Laundry baskets, planters, stools, light shades, jewellery and bilums, all made using traditional materials and techniques, are available for purchase online and can be shipped all over the world.

‘The platform is a pilot program that has the potential to create real scale, awareness and a single location for businesses and consumers to source Papua New Guinean artisan goods from small-batch artisan producers,’ says Bruce.

During APEC, the organisation also lobbied for the development of a permanent creative arts precinct in Port Moresby and is currently looking for partners to help develop this commercial and logistics urban hub.

While Considered by Real is the final piece in a high-impact supply chain, Bruce and her team have also been exploring ways to help SMEs find the first piece – funding. Due to its isolation and small populations, Pacific region SMEs have always found it difficult to find investors.

But, in November, Cathy Wariapa from the remote Ialibu District in the Southern Highlands received a loan of $US15,250 through microfinance platform Kiva. The first of its kind in PNG, the loan was crowdfunded in less than 14 hours. Wariapa, founder of Cwakama Arts & Crafts, will use the capital to develop new products using the traditional skills of the Ialibu weavers from her community.

REAL Impact has partnered with Kiva to facilitate zero-interest loans of up to $US50,000 for SMEs in PNG and the Solomon Islands.

Since launching in 2005, not-for-profit Kiva has facilitated more than $1.2 billion in micro-loans to low-income business owners and individuals in 80 countries, with women making up more than 80 per cent of its three million borrowers.

Crowd funding

Kiva works on a crowdfunding model, which allows lenders to connect with organisations that provide small, low-risk loans to in-need individuals or groups in developing countries.

‘At Kiva, we are committed to addressing the challenge of financial exclusion wherever it exists in the world,’ remarks Mark McDonagh, Kiva investment manager.

‘Through our platform, we are able to offer a unique form of risk-tolerant capital that REAL Impact will use to finance and scale promising businesses in the Pacific region.’

REAL Impact is committed to preparing a minimum of four SMEs for investment in the next six months, and, with the retail platform already launched, there’s no reason PNG handicrafts won’t be appearing in hotel rooms and on fashion runways in the next few years.

Marc Evans