The Vietnam SME path…Is there a PNG version?

20171112_115321At least 10 hours before our departure from Da Nang City, our taxi driver, Mr. Han, who had been very helpful for the last seven days took us   for a drive out of Da Nang City.

“We go Hoi An market,” he said. “Good tailor. Good price.”

Outside of Da Nang City, the landscape is quickly transformed to wide open spaces.
“Very beautiful,” Mr. Han says. “They grow rai (rice).”

On both sides of the road leading to Hoi An Market are rice paddies that extend for miles. Water buffalos stand  unattended at the edge of the paddies, grazing on the grass.
The roads are good. A significant amount of investment has gone into the building of the roads in this rapidly growing economy. A relatively accurate indication of an economy’s growth is in the number of cement bags being brought by building contractors.

Along the road to Hoi An Market, new hotels are being built. New houses are taking shape and land is being cleared for concrete skyscrapers. Yet, this is an economy that is SME based.

We stop for a few minutes at a small business that produces marble and rock statues and figurines. The manager tells me the larger marble Buddahs sell for an average of USD7000 or about K22,000.   The workmanship is exceptional.   All the pieces are handmade and produced in a backyard workshop.
This is one of the many SMEs that exports overseas.

Tourists line the road walking or cycling. No body guards. No expensive entourage. I thought, if we managed the crime rate and provided more opportunities for young people… If we simply changed the way we think, the road from Nadzab to Lae could be turned into a massive SME hub with businesses owned by the people of Papua New Guinea.

Nearly every residential home front is either a restaurant or a shop. Every family’s life revolves around income generation, self-sufficiency and economic independence.   In fact, I remarked by email, last night that Papua New Guinea’s National Goals and Directive Principles written by founding fathers who were at the time, very young, captured the direction that Vietnam took.
It’s not rocket science!

Transportation is simple.

Motorcycles take kids to school and take their parents to work, while we opt for status over convenience by choosing cars over cheaper transportation. With cheaper transportation, we can ride out the chronic bus strikes that plague cities like Port Moresby.

Of course, one can argue that this is a simplistic view of economic development. But think of the possibilities.

When the government of Vietnam drastically slashed tariffs, it gave people a wider choice of goods and services. The prices dropped and the standard of living rapidly improved.

The Vietnam government has been careful, yet decisive in its foreign economic policy.

As the neighboring Chinese economy grew, Vietnam agreed to have some of China’s manufacturing outsourced to them. The Chinese understood that the cost of production would increase as the middle class grew. That decision has had a flow on effect. Jobs were created and new SME spin-offs emerged, all revolving around the tech manufacturing.

The decision was forward thinking in that it took into account the future uptake of gadgets and luxury items by people who would be in their mid 20s and 30s by 2016.

As we go into Hoi An Market, Mr. Han, guides the imported Toytota Fortuner through the busy narrow streets. There are tailor shops everywhere. Each displaying the kind of clothing items that you find on the lines branded by Louis Vuitton and the rest of the big guns of the world fashion.

The difference? The clothes are of the same quality but unbranded and much, much cheaper. At these SMEs you can get a three piece suit, custom made in five hours for K600. They even keep your measurements in a database in case you want to order by email in future.
As Papua New Guinea’s income levels grow and the middle class expands, our costs also rise. Our costs structures are among the most expensive in the region. For instance, rental costs in Port Moresby average between K2500 per week for a modest apartment to K5,000 per week.   Shop spaces cost between K6000 and K30,000. It is out of reach for ambitious Papua New Guineans looking to start a business in town and city centers.

After the APEC meeting in Vietnam, the need for cheaper internet costs, lower taxes and more support for SMEs have come to the fore.   There needs to be serious efforts to slash costs drastically so that the opportunities are increased and the cost burden associated with starting and running a business are reduced for our people.
At present, costs and impediments are so restrictive that our people don’t get the opportunity to thrive in their own country.





A tale about language barriers & the lobster worth 5 million (Dong)

millionairThis blog post is three days late but it is a worthy of broadcast for travellers going to Vietnam.

First thing… language barrier. It hits you like a wall. But first let’s put all this into context.

I wasn’t in Vietnam as a tourist. So things may be different if you’re travelling as a tourist.

Security at the airport was unusually tight because of the arrival of APEC leaders and delegates. Everywhere, black clad members of the elite police unit stood, armed with the standard issue AK47s or smaller MP5s.

My baggage didn’t arrive. So I had to place a report.   I took a fair bit of time trying to explain what a Pelican case was. “No… it’s not a bird and no it doesn’t have metal corners like what you have on your catalogue.”

Thanks to Google, I found a picture and showed it to them. It helped A LOT! Google is indeed a blessing to mankind.

Then the ground staff asked for my email address and I passed it on to her. She said she would all when the bags arrived. I asked for her email address but I couldn’t write it on my English speaking keypad.

My phone’s autocorrect function just went “WT…???” and shut itself down. It couldn’t handle the pressure of dealing with the Vietnamese language. Too stressful.

Outside the terminal, the signs in English were few. The Vietnamese use the  Latin script for their language, courtesy of their French colonisers many years ago. But it’s a difficult language to understand and the words were, quite taxing on my Papua New Guinean tongue.

A Vietnamese producer I met in Bangkok a few years ago was explaining to me   just how complex the Vietnamese language is. To put it simply,   he said there was five sounds and meanings to the sound “WAH.” The differences are subtle. It’s difficult enough trying to explain by writing so I’ll stop there. I am not an expert here, even though my country has 800 of the world’s languages.

23433258_1884991461517223_815518918_oBack to the airport…

So it was raining heavily, when we arrived. Typhoon season, they said. I mean, serious raining. I come from Lae where it rains a lot. BUT it doesn’t rain nonstop for weeks. The last time it happened, Tent City was created.

We asked for a taxi. Nobody understood. The military guy we asked,  said something about a visa card. I don’t know why.

So we eventually found our way around, like Papua New Guineans always do, and got into an 8-seater taxi. We headed for the Grand Mango Hotel – a place I found online. Fast forward to 6pm, Vietnam time, at a seafood restaurant. The taxi driver said it was a OK. He didn’t tell us it was expensive.

Two team members, Ivan  and Freddy, asked for a lobster and a fish separately. We knew the Vietnamese Dong (their money), isn’t a decimal currency but we hadn’t really gotten around to understanding costs in Vietnam.

So Ivan paid 1.5 million Dong for the lobster. Freddy paid a few hundred thousand less. The larger lobster was 5 million Dong. We could have bought it. but we didn’t.   Millionaires. Tycoons with, literally, millions in their pockets.

Later that night when I was converting the value of the Dong to US dollars, it hit me. That place was EXPENSIVE! If we had bought the 5 million Dong lobster, we would have spent something in order of 200 US dollars or K600 kina!

Language barrier. We didn’t break through it like they did the sound barrier but we found a way around it and it cost us the equivalent of the price of a good phone.

Freddy dubbed Ivan, “the millionaire.”

Apart from the language barrier, I found the Vietnamese to be very kind, respectful and helpful. They are small people with big hearts. Remember, the grand parents of this generation fought the French and won. Then they fought the Americans and forced them out.

The same tenacity and drive, is being put into the fourth industrial revolution… the  digital revolution and it is reaping important results. Vietnam is now the 47th most powerful economy in the world.

They do business in their own language and they own their economy.

What is “language barrier?”

Lessons from Vietnam: Cheap internet, huge tax cuts and support to SMEs

Vietnam1Papua New Guinea is small, compared to other neighboring economies.

Many of the development challenges facing the country have not yet been resolved as the it takes on the huge responsibility of hosting the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Port Moresby.

High on the points of discussion is the “digitization” of APEC economies. Simply put, it means access to internet technology, mobile phones and communications.

But access alone achieves very little unless the people use it to empower themselves and raise their standard of living.

In the Asia region, economies have harnessed the power of internet technology, with larger economies creating conducive environments that enable small businesses to trade with others around the globe.

In a rather simplistic outlook, the internet has changed the meaning of globalization. In the 21st century, globalization isn’t about large companies taking over smaller organizations and becoming “multinationals.” It is about small scale industries reaching a global market from the comfort of a mobile phone.

In Danang City, where the APEC meetings are being held, the power of internet technology and access to communications has drastically transformed the economy.   New industries have risen and are thriving. The demand for gadgets and associated items has increased significantly over 15 years.

Free wifi is accessible. Data costs are relatively cheap.

Customers who buy high end mobile devices also choose to buy Bluetooth headsets or personal boom boxes. Gadgets have become smaller and personal.

On another front, the government of Vietnam is currently on a path to reduce import taxes.

Online newspaper, VietnamNet reported that that “import duties are down from 5% to zero for 1,715 more tariff lines, including those for farm produce and fuel products. Together with 6,859 tariff lines removed between early 2012 and late last year, 90% of the tariff lines in ATIGA are now brought down to zero.

“Vietnam will cut 7% of tariff lines, or 669 items, including steel, paper, cloth, autos, auto components, machines, equipment, building materials and furniture in 2018.”

The government decision has triggered various results including an increase in vehicles imports. Despite fears that the tariff reduction would kills jobs, local manufacturers have increased investments and the job market has remained relatively stable.

Broadly speaking, the lives of ordinary Vietnamese are better.

While Papua New Guinea may not be able to repeat the successes of Vietnam, it is starting with plans to slash internet costs by half and to “support SMEs” at least on paper.

It is no secret that more needs to be done.

Reducing internet and mobile phone costs has to be supported with a reliable power supply.   SME owners   must have the training and finance. Bureaucratic and political obstacles have to be removed.

But most importantly, Papua New Guinean businesses have to be given the incubation space to grow and the people have to own their economy with strong support their government.

I’m Papua New Guinean, not African


So yesterday in Singapore I wanted to buy a local SIM card.

Even after years of travel, I can never get used to  the complexities of big city existence.

Russell Saigomi, evil twin #2, was kind enough to stop at a tiny roadside shop where a gentleman of South Asian origin tried to convince me – the already converted – of the value of buying a Singtel SIM.

“1BG data. Free SIM,” he said. Then he asks for my passport.

Then he  took some time.

For some reason, his computer didn’t recognise my passport. I peered over the counter and looked at the screen. All the details appeared correct except the country where the passport was issued.

He had written GHANA without even asking!

He assumed I was African and his system was refusing my passport. So, here I am standing there. Looking at the screen. Even the Singtel system was telling him… “Dude… he’s Papua New Guinean” and he refused to believe it.

And you know how you don’t know a language but you know what they’re talking about? It’s because foreign languages have a way of dropping you hints just so you understand. I guess there was a system upgrade that was supposed to have happened after the Tower of Babel incident long ago, but the techs forgot about it. So the bugs are still there.

So the guy was talking to his wantoks and the word that kept coming up was “Africa…” Then somehow, GHANA appeared on the  computer as part of my personal details.

It took some time again.

There was me trying to explain that I am from Papua New Guinea:”I am NOT  from the great continent of Africa and definitely NOT from Ghana…”

…and  Russell telling him to type: P-A-P-U-A   N-E-W   G-U-I-N-E-A into the system.

It finally worked out. I got the SIM.

In March, I arrived at Male (pronounced MA-LEH) International Airport on the small island nation of Maldives.

It is a beautiful country. The people are nice and very conscious of the impacts of climate change and… cross border threats especially from Africa.

The Maldivians speak Divehi – a blend of languages including Arabic Hindi. It is the result of thousands of years of cross cultural exchanges. I was sent to from one Immigration desk to another while the rest of the passengers proceeded to the baggage collection area.

The rapid fire exchange of Divehi was punctuated by the word “GUINEA” and “AFRICA.”

Immigration guy again assumed I was African and sent me straight to immigration girl at the “Ebola and Yellow Fever” section. This was at the height of the Ebola crisis in Africa.

Again it took some time. Nobody asked. Everyone assumed I was African.

Then I said: “Excuse me Miss, what’s the problem?”

She was she was looking to see if “GUINEA” was on the list of countries associated with the ebola outbreak.

Me: “uuuumm… I am not from Guinea in Africa. My country is PAPUA NEW GUINEA. It is an island nation like yours and we live in the Pacific. NO EBOLA.

They let me through.

Three days later, there was a bird flu outbreak in Male. Four people died.

It wasn’t me.


Bulolo & Manam, our very own ‘refugee’ crisis ignored for years

refugee.jpgCass Anduari lives with his family under a government building at the edge of Bulolo Town.

The elderly gentleman’s family was among dozens of ethnic Sepiks forced from their homes during a clash with the local people in 2010.

They’ve built wooden platforms on the ground on which they put mattresses to sleep. The place doubles as a living area. During the day mosquito nets are rolled up so meals can be served.   They drink water from a tank at the back of the building.

“This is where I’ve lived since the crisis. We have received very little in terms of assistance. It’s not much, but where can we go?”

Close by, other members of his Sepik community live in makeshift buildings.

They can’t cut trees to build because of restrictions by landowners. They use what they can from the nearby PNG Forest Products sawmill.

Further down the road, behind the Bulolo Police station, A larger group of some 500 adults live in a tight cluster of shelters made from cardboard, timber and tarpaulin.

They have no clean drinking water. Their main water source is a hole in the ground used for drinking and washing. The water is dirty and sometimes it smells.

The Bulolo District has been working to map out plots of land to resettle the families. It’s taking a long time weaving through the process of land allocation. Many of the settlers say it’s incompetence that’s causing the delay.

In 2014, one settler said: “We have our own refugee type problems here in Papua New Guinea. Here we are displaced while the government is signing deals with Australia to accommodate foreign refugees. Are we not citizens worthy enough of immediate government attention?”

In 2010, the Bulolo District tried repatriating some of the families to East Sepik Province where the their older generation came from in the early 1930s.   But the Districts efforts didn’t work out. Months later, they returned to Bulolo after having difficulty settling in.

One woman said: “We couldn’t stay there. Yes. We know that’s where our grandfathers came from. But we don’t know the place. We don’t know who our family members are. It’s a strange place. Bulolo is home. This is where our family lives.

Four hundred kilometers away, another crisis has been ongoing.

More than 15,000 Manam Islanders displaced by volcanic eruptions in 2004 live on old plantations. There is now a chronic land shortage.

Like the Sepiks in Bulolo, the islanders are unable to obtain building materials for houses or plant food gardens because of restrictions by local landowners in Bogia.

The land shortage and population pressures triggered clashes between the clans of the Bogia district who played host to the Manams 15 years ago. The Bogias accommodated the Manams on the understanding that they would be resettled on government acquired land.

That has not happened.

“Many of the older people have died of sorrow. They don’t have the freedom they had on the island. They can’t fish. They can’t walk about in the bush. Because its not theirs. They don’t belong here,” a community leader said.

In the last parliament, the Manam Resettlement Bill was brought to the corridors of parliament but didn’t make it to the floor.   Disagreements between the Madang Governor Jim Kass and the Bogia MP caused the bill to fall through.

There was again another attempt later.

As the PNG government tries to get out of the political and diplomatic quagmire created by the refugee center deal, its own displaced people live in care centers largely unassisted.

While there have been promises and political statement made on the resettlement of the Manam people, nothing tangible has happened. The Sepiks of Bulolo, remain in the main care center behind the Bulolo police station.

Sir Michael wants Manus refugees sent to Australia | By Stefan Armbruster, SBS

Papua New Guinea’s former Prime Minister and elder statesman Sir Michael Somare has called for the men remaining on Manus Island to be sent to Australia, as hundreds continue to hold out in the former detention centre for a second day.

Sir Michael called Australia’s treatment of refugees “ruthless” and “hypocritical”, saying the agreement was that they be resettled elsewhere and not in PNG.

The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has again called on “Australia to stop a humanitarian emergency unfolding on Manus” and details “inadequate” services on the island.

About 600 refugees and asylum seekersremain barricaded in the centre on the PNG Lombrum navy base, after Australia officially closed it on Tuesday. They have spent a second night without food, clean water and now, no electricity.

The men refuse to leave the centre for “transit” accommodation in the main town of Lorengau. They claim it is unsafe for them, they lack support services, and want to be resettled in a third country.

PNG police have said they respect their human rights and would not forcibly remove the men.

“We should have a better understanding between two prime ministers of Australia and PNG and repatriate these people,” Sir Michael told SBS News after releasing a statement earlier.

“[The] best thing is for Australia and PNG to agree to make re-agreement again for people to be shipped to 


No exit plan for Manus says Ronny Knight

Pic from CNN

As the Australian Government tried to shrug off its responsibilities on Manus Island,  Greens Senator, Nick McKim,  has fired a broadside saying  Australia  had disrespected Papua New Guinea and its people.

Statement came after the Senator attended a protest  led by locals in Manus who called on the Australian government to resolve the issue.

“The refugees are the responsibility of the Australian Government.  I am calling on the Australian Government to quickly evacuate them men  from Manus.

“This is a humanitarian emergency.

“What Australia has done is disrespectful to the PNG government and the people of Manus.”

McKim saw  the turbulence unfold this week on Manus as  Australia announced the closure of the refugee center.

This morning,  the senator was reportedly threatened with arrest when PNG immigration officials  gave him five minutes to leave the  refugee compound.  An ABC crew was verbally abused  by security the previous day.

About 700 men remain in the camp. They have  been protesting  over the camp’s closure and are demanding that they be resettled in Australia.  As of yesterday,  power  to the center was cut.  The water pipes were cut and the tanks drained.

Iranian journalist, Behrouz Boochani, who has been  active on Twitter  said  several refugees have become physically sick and others were hungry after meals were stopped.

“PNG Immigration told  refugees to go to the East Lorengau Center. But we don’t feel safe.  It is the responsibility  of the Australian Government.  Local people don’t agree with us staying here.”

“I cannot say that I am ok. I couldn’t sleep well and I am not good, physically.”

ABC producer,  Bethanie Harriman  who  went into the camp a day ago reported that   garbage bins had been washed out so the refugees can collect  drinking water.

“Everyone has left. The hospital is closed.  The men who were receiving medication for mental illnesses  don’t have access to medicine anymore.”

Speaking to Reporters on Tuesday, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop said, PNG had made arrangements for  food,  accommodation and medical services.

Manus locals and some  PNG politicians have been angered by what they see as Australia’s lack of sensitivity in the whole issue.

Former Manus MP,  Ronny Knight,  who  has opposed the establishment of the  center,  said there is no clear exit plan  by Australia.

“The East Lorengau center isn’t completed.   If PNG is talking about cultural  integration, it won’t work.”