Adding value to the PNG balsa industry

Balsa wood is a material one might use to make a model aeroplane as it is light-weight and durable. Indeed, it is a remarkably strong building material relative to its weight. Manufacturers use the wood to make products as diverse as surfboards and rotor blades for wind turbines, and there is growing market demand for composite products containing balsa. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the provincial government of East New Britain, in Papua New Guinea, initiated a reforestation program in heavily logged areas involving the introduction of balsa trees. Farmers planted balsa trees in parts of Pomio, Baining and the hinterland of the Gazelle Peninsula. Since then, balsa plantations have spread to cocoa growing areas of the province. Today, many people in East New Britain rely on balsa crops as an important contributor to their livelihoods.

A research team led by Professor Peter Kanowski and Dr Kulala Mulung is conducting a five-year study in the province that seeks to support the local balsa industry. The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, an Australian Government initiative, is funding the project. The study aims to better understand the management of time sensitivities, determine aspects that those in the local industry could improve and find ways of making the ‘value chain’ more efficient and lucrative.

The value chain comprises a series of activities through which the balsa is produced, distributed and marketed. At each stage of the chain, farmers and producers add value to the balsa and make a profit when they sell their product. Each party in the value chain needs to manage risk and protect their interests. By developing processes that cut costs and maintain or improve the quality of their products, smallholders and producers can boost profits and ensure the sustainability of their businesses.

“Balsa tree growing, as with any smallholding crop grown for commercial returns, requires two key supporting elements: a market and a route to that market,” Kanowski explains. “Before a farmer can sell a crop to a willing buyer, they must develop a site and manage their balsa trees to ensure that seedlings reach their potential.” Weed control and tree form are important issues that can affect the value of a balsa farmer’s crop.

A processor, like a smallholder, must have a market and a route to market for the finished goods, Kanowski explains. “A processor must meet market demand by harvesting and transporting logs of suitable attributes to a processing facility,” he says. “They need to convert the unprocessed balsa into commercial products that meet the requirements of international markets and then transport and export their finished products efficiently and cost-effectively.”

There is considerable potential to improve the lives of Papua New Guineans by bolstering the balsa industry, according to Kanowski. “We are supporting landowners and producers to develop better management practices and gain access to markets for their products more easily,” he says. “Ultimately, this will help to improve the livelihoods and wellbeing of Papua New Guineans.”