While the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders meeting will be held in Papua New Guinea (PNG) in November this year, Trade Ministers from the region have been meeting in PNG this weekend to work on some of the key preparations. PNG’s Trade Minister, Rimbink Pato, hopes that by hosting the APEC meetings “people will at least know where Papua New Guinea is.”
For those who already know—or may soon discover—where PNG is, questions about economic development and cooperation may turn to how the country is supporting technological entrepreneurship as one key growth strategy.
For years, PNG’s slow bandwidth, high internet costs, and low subscriber base acted as a barrier to small and medium-sized companies interested to engage in e-commerce as well as other tech-based development solutions. One reason that PNG is saddled with low internet connectivity is due to its mountainous terrain and the fact that a large percentage of the population lives in more remote rural areas. There is almost no fixed telecommunications infrastructure outside of the major urban centers.
Progress in the telecommunications sector has come from mobile networks. The number of mobile broadband subscribers is growing with the recent deployment of mobile infrastructure and significant assistance from the World Bank.
And so there is potential to be tapped. One local entrepreneur, Samson Korawali, is looking beyond the low connectivity rates and relatively poor web development and search engine optimisation to promote the export of goods and services via online platforms. An example of one of the apps supported by Korawali is GoFood PNG. Drivers can go to restaurants and grocery stores, pick up food that other people have ordered online, and deliver directly to them.
Korawali is also focusing on social impact. His biggest project is a learning management system called Reelae, a platform that promotes student-teacher interaction and employs artificial intelligence in its analytics engine to provide analytics on student activity and engagement.
Another young Papua New Guinean entrepreneur, Shane Ninai, is hoping to boost financial inclusion in the country by creating an alternative low-cost banking system built on bitcoin and blockchain. Ninai sees great opportunity for these technologies in PNG, where many people are excluded from formal financial systems.
Ninai is the co-founder of Ledger Atlas, which is in the process of developing a special economic zone (SEZ) in PNG that will focus on maximising blockchain innovation and emerging technologies. The hope—backed by a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the government—is that this SEZ will spur blockchain platforms, accessed via mobile devices, that could offer Papua New Guineans an opportunity to promote community-generated solutions.
Hosting the APEC meetings this past weekend has also provided an opportunity for PNG to support regional collaboration on promoting digital platforms for entrepreneurs. The APEC Secretariat, in collaboration with Google and The Asia Foundation, has supported the 2018 APEC App Challenge which is challenging 14 teams of software engineers from nine APEC countries to address one question: “how can technology bring opportunities to entrepreneurs in the informal sectors of the APEC economies?”
PNG’s own success in digital entrepreneurship will rely to some extent on active government engagement and support. As is the case in more developed digital economies, local information communication technology entrepreneurs in PNG point to the need for strong political leadership to push policy reform to support growth—not only in developing key infrastructure but also in lowering what is viewed as the high cost of establishing a start-up and providing greater tax incentives to these fledgling businesses.
Photo credit: Kahunapule Michael Johnson