Building family livelihoods from charcoal in PNG

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

University of Adelaide researchers have helped create a new industry for Papua New Guinea (PNG) farmers based on producing charcoal from locally grown firewood crops.

A six-year project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and working with PNG researchers and landholders, has seen the development of successful small businesses surrounding the production and selling of charcoal from new quick-growing tree crops.

Led by Dr Ian Nuberg, Senior Lecturer in the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine at the University's Waite Campus, the project started with an extensive survey of PNG's fuelwood economy.

"Not surprisingly the rural populations of PNG are high fuelwood users, but even in urban areas where they have access to electricity, most households use fuelwood at some time during the year," says Dr Nuberg. "We could see it was a unique and very much underdeveloped market, with a lot of opportunity for the development of new businesses."

The second part of the project focussed on developing agroforestry systems with a focus on quick-growing species that re-grow from the stump once harvested. The aim was to have small woodlots so farmers could produce wood in just two years. The wood is also easy to handle as it doesn't require splitting.

"We found the right species and trials were successful but we came up against some consumer resistance because the wood looked different to what they were used to," says Dr Nuberg. The solution they found was to turn the wood into charcoal.

"The product was good - it's cleaner burning and lighter to carry - but there wasn't an existing market in charcoal," he says. "When we demonstrated charcoal stoves at regional cultural shows, it attracted great interest from the crowds. The last phase of our project was to identify and help establish business models that would fit in the PNG culture."

In a country where there is much conflict over land ownership and a highly diverse culture with 800 language groups, it's a significant challenge to establish collaborative marketing arrangements.

"We came up with two working business models: one suitable for the Highlands based around family groupings and one suitable for the lowlands where there was more opportunity for broader groups collaborating together to create the value-adding chain from growing trees through to selling charcoal in the market," says Dr Nuberg.

"Around Lae (the second-largest city in PNG) in particular this has been very successful with seven extended-family groups now operating business based on charcoal. The groups decided to form a cooperative so they are not competing against each other. Member groups focus variously on charcoal production, stove construction, and demonstration and sales in the market place. We are very happy with the result.

"What we've done is applied science and the business of agroforestry to help people build real livelihoods from tree products. It's been very rewarding."


Contact Details

Dr Ian Nuberg
Senior Lecturer
School of Agriculture, Food and Wine
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 0527
Mobile: +61 (0)421 144 671

Ms Robyn Mills
Media and Communications Officer
The University of Adelaide
Business: +61 8 8313 6341
Mobile: +61 410 689 084