SIMBAI is a sub-district of Middle Ramu in Madang Province. It is referred to by some as the Highlands of Madang because of its rough and mountainous terrain.
Simbai LLG borders Western Highlands, Jiwaka, Angoram District of East Sepik and Enga Province. The estimate terrain elevation above sea level is 2144 metres.
Like other remote areas of Papua New Guinea, Simbai has being neglected for over 40 years as far as basic government services are concern.
I had the opportunity to walk the terrains of Simbai with colleague Steven Tevo, Field Technical Officer for Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project (coffee component). Purpose of our travel was to check and report on rehabilitation work being carried out on coffee gardens by Anglican Church of PNG (ACPNG), a Lead Partner funded by PPAP.
The Anglican Church is working with 877 farmers in five cluster groups in the mountains of Simbai. The farmer groups stretch from as far as Lower Jimi in Jiwaka across to Angoram District in East Sepik.
Accompanying us were BSP Mt Hagen-based officers Spycher NG Nate and Max Balkes on an invitation by ACPNG and PPAP to open new accounts for the rural farmers and their families. This is an initiative under coffee rehabilitation work being carried out by Anglican Church, a Lead Partner of PPAP.
After touching down at Bank airstrip from Mt Hagen on Monday, 9 May at midday, we endured six hours walk climbing close to 30 degree elevation mountains and crossing several creeks and Mungoi River to arrive at Gonas Village at 6 o’clock night that day. At Gonas we met with the farmers for a day and half. On Wednesday, 11 July at exactly 12 noon, we climbed for two hours to reach the top of Gonas mountain to connect with an abandon road from Aiome to Simbai station, and continued walking for remaining seven hours to reach Simbai Station at 9 o’clock in the night.
For the people of Simbai, this is a normal lifestyle. They are used to carrying loads and walking long distances.
At present there is no serviceable road. Men, women and children as young as five-years-old walk for days to get reliable health service or buy basic food items and necessities at Simbai and Aiome Station or worse, walked for two days to Lower Ramu and get a motorised canoe to Madang town.
In the Kongrau area, two mothers died of complications during delivery. Their babies survived and were cared for by the families. The children are now five and seven-years-old.
“Em hevi blong mipela ol mama long bikbus ya” (These are the problems mothers in the jungles of Simbai face), says widow Wilma John on behalf of mothers at Kongrau.
While the area having a fair bit of coastal and highlands climate, cocoa, copra and betel nut are major cash commodities for people closer to the coast. Coffee is the main source of income for the inland Simbai people, and opening a bank account to save for the future is an important service they have been denied for almost four decades.
Our visit brought excitement to over 300 farmers who gathered at Gonas Village and later at Simbai station.
Despite their isolation, they are well informed and politically savvy. I was thrilled to see women farmers being encouraged by their husbands to join the queue to open BSP accounts. A mother, Lilian Peter, aged 45, only recently attended an adult literacy training and was made aware of the importance of savings.
“Yupela rausim ai wara long ai blong mipela. Dispela em spesel samting stret yupela mekim long mi na famili blong mi. Mi save haitim K600 em mi bin sevim long 6-pela yia olgeta. Mani bai stap seiv nau wantaim BSP na mi ken seiv moa. Tenkyu stret” (You just wiped tears from my eyes. This is something special for me and my family. I’ve been hiding this money in the house and carrying it around for the last six years. It will be safe now with the bank and I can save more. Thank you very much).
At Gonas, 128 farmers opened an account.
Due to poor network connectivity at Gonas, some farmers followed us to Simbai station to open their accounts. In total 144 farmers including women and children opened a bank account for the first time.
The first visit by BSP officers was in April this year where 167 accounts were opened at Simbai station. A financial literacy training financed by PPAP was also conducted at the same time which attracted 204 participants.
BSP officer Mr Nate said Simbai has been without banking services for the last 40 years and the interest shown by the people to have an account with BSP was very demanding for them to return.
“With Anglican Church of PNG and CIC-PPAP bringing BSP to their doorstep to deliver banking service is something new for them.
“We also talk to them on how banking services work and they feel that BANK is the most safe and secured place to park their hard earn money and can withdraw when the need arises.”
Mr Nate added that BSP will also assist to set up an agent at Simbai station to take deposits and withdrawals with EFTPOS devices installed in trade stores.
The PPAP project manager Potaisa Hombunaka acknowledges the initiative taken by Lead Partner ACPNG.
“The aim here is to encourage our farmers, especially those who live in the rural areas to save some money from their coffee earnings.
“As long as their savings accumulate in a bank account, it will excite them to think about buying new things to improve and sustain their lives,” says Mr Hombunaka.
Mr Hombunaka also acknowledges the support from Mt Hagen BSP to partner ACPNG and in an effort to encourage more people, especially the unbanked coffee farmers to save for the future.
The people of Simbai are industrious. Their major concern now is a serviceable road to link them to their provincial capital Madang or to Mt Hagen in the Western Highlands. This will help to market their coffee and other agriculture produce to improve their livelihood.
For the time being PPAP and Lead Partner ACPNG is considering group marketing to help farmers to sell their coffee until a serviceable road is in placed.
The PPAP is a coffee rehabilitation initiative of Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC) funded by a loan facility from World Bank IDA (International Development Association) and IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) with counter-funding from GoPNG.
The author is Information & Communications Officer for Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project (PPAP) operating under Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC).
Some farmers who travelled in from inland receiving their coffee pulper and gardening tools from PPAP Leader Partner ACPNG (Anglican Church of PNG) at Simbai station.
Mother Lilian Peter (45) and other womers lining up to ipen their account with BSP officers at Gonas Village in the mountains of Simbai.
The author (right) and his escort walking along the abandoned Aiome-Simbai road at 2144 meters above sea level.