“I initiated the cooperative, Keto-Tepasi, in 2008. Then I went away from the village and it has not been run properly so I have come back to be the Chair-lady.”
From the very outset, it is clear that Elizabeth Duna knows what she thinks and how things need to be done. It’s no surprise then that she has overcome the gender divide in PNG to become the most influential figure at the Keto-Tepasi coffee cooperative in the Eastern Highlands of PNG, and the first female cooperative chairperson in the whole Pacific region.
Elizabeth didn’t always plan to live among the coffee gardens in a rural village of Kau Basis in the Simbu province. She actually grew up in the city and it was her extended family who lived in the villages and farmed their coffee gardens in Kau Basis. Instead, she went to Teacher Training, became an elementary teacher and settled into life with an ex-pat Australian husband.
But her family has a rich history at the village. Her grandfather was the village chief and her father was his eldest son so the connection was always going to be strong. That connection meant that she wanted to take her husband to visit the coffee farms so he could meet her extended family and see a different kind of life in PNG.
As soon as they arrived he was touched by the warm welcome and generosity shown to them, even though it was clear that the local farmers made very meagre incomes from their coffee gardens. It was then that he and Elizabeth decided that they use their savings to try and help, to make it so that the coffee farmers could enjoy a better life from their hard work.
“We developed the cooperative as a way of making a long-term difference. We were just opening the door, making it so that they could walk in.”
Part of the plan was that the cooperative would be Fairtrade from the outset, to ensure that the farmers were paid at least the Fairtrade Minimum Price for their beans and so that they would be supported to grow and improve. Elizabeth and her husband stayed in the village long enough to set up the processes and then returned to their city lives. Despite the Fairtrade support the farmers received, the cooperative’s path has not been smooth.
“I have been watching and it seems that the farmers are not getting enough money now. There are 313 farmers as part of the cooperative and I don’t think they are all educated about the Standards and benefits of Fairtrade. They weren’t doing it properly.”
So Elizabeth made the decision to move back to the village and to offer her skills as a new Chairperson of the cooperative. Despite the respect which came from her family history and her background with Keto-Tepasi, she knew it would be difficult.
“There are no other women who are Chairs of cooperatives in PNG. It’s not a usual thing so we even had to hold the election twice. The first time I won a majority there were still people in the cooperative that would not accept it. So everyone voted again, and I won again.”
That was three months ago, and Elizabeth says that she thinks things are already starting to change and people are feeling happy with her leadership. As well as organising many training sessions, she explains that the key for her is to gain their trust by working side-by-side with the farmers.
“I work honestly with them, sewing and crafting and living in my small hut with my own coffee garden. They understand that my intentions are good. I just want them to see the importance of producing good quality coffee and selling it at a good price.”
The normal term for a cooperative Chair is two years but the members have agreed to give Elizabeth four years to prove herself. It seems unlikely that she’ll need anywhere near that long.