Pacific Success - Bilum, opening the door to international markets

Inextricably woven into the social and cultural fabric of Papua New Guinea (PNG), bilum – a string bag woven by women – was traditionally a practical item used to carry babies, food, personal items or tools. For thousands of years, the art of weaving bilum has been passed down from generation to generation, a part of the cultural heritage, creative identity and way of life for women living in rural and urban communities across PNG.

Bilum has developed into a crucial source of income for PNG women, empowering them as micro-entrepreneurs, especially those living in the Highlands where there are few income-generating opportunities outside of subsistence farming.

Two bilum weaving communities based in the Highlands are the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative and the Mount Hagan Handicrafts Group and Giluew Artisans. Founder of the Goroka Bilum Weavers Cooperative Florence Jaukae-Kamel whose cooperative supports over 50 female weavers, said that bilum sales provided a source of income to supplement seasonal cash crops while the cooperative provided much needed social support.

‘Many of the women in our cooperative are HIV positive, homeless and/or are single mothers who really need support – especially because in PNG there is no welfare or government support available,’ said Ms Jaukae-Kamel.

Working closely for nearly two decades with the Bilum Meris and communities, Pacific Trade Invest (PTI) Australia saw the opportunity for bilum to be positioned in international markets as a high-end artistic product. Through its Creative Industries program, PTI Australia has helped lift the international profile of bilum and facilitated buyer connections, building an ongoing pathway of sales outside of ad hoc tourist market.

One of the successful pathways facilitated is with Among Equals and the bilum weaving communities in the Highlands of PNG. Among Equals, an Australian social enterprise aimed at empowering women bilum weavers in PNG. Founder Caroline Sherman was first introduced to bilum by PTI Australia and was inspired to create Among Equals.

Caroline worked with PTI Australia to overcome a number of hurdles – most notably the difficulty of working with producers in remote communities – to ensure the integrity of her supply chain. As bilum is an indigenous art form, it was also vitally important that Among Equals respected and protected the traditional knowledge held sacred by bilum weavers in PNG.

‘The worlds of these women are complex, often violent and insecure. Through an ongoing relationship with these communities my aim is to provide them with sustainable incomes and to help ensure bilum remains a viable art form for future generations,’ Mrs Sherman said.
Earlier this year, PTI Australia’s Trade & Investment Commissioner, Caleb Jarvis, led a buyer delegation to PNG that included Among Equals, and resulted in the largest ever single bilum sale in the history of PNG.
Caleb Jarvis said the importance of building the profile of bilum and bilum communities into international markets is vital for creating a sustainable export-ready industry.

‘Many of the communities we work with are remote and there is a perception that villages are dangerous for foreigners, creating a real barrier for international buyers. Our Creative Industries program works to assist with creating connections between the informal weaving market and international buyers’

Hangan Handicrafts and Giluew Artisans Group Leader, Barbra Pagasa said the ongoing support by PTI Australia in establishing sustainable connections has been vital for the livelihoods of the women weavers in her community.

‘By working with PTI Australia and connections like Among Equals, the money that flows from international sales has enabled my women to pay for roofing iron, put food on the table and allows them to go to school,’ Ms Pagasa said.

For further insight watch how bilum is empowering the lives of women in PNG.