Bilum weaving new futures for women in PNG

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With a little help, the entrepreneurship and vision of these women can lead to great commercial success and inclusive economic growth. Photo credit: Australian High Commission Port Moresby.

For thousands of years, bilum weaving has been handed down from mothers to daughters across Papua New Guinea (PNG). It is an integral part of PNG’s cultural heritage and an important source of income for artisan women, especially those facing significant social and economic disadvantage. Yet despite bilum’s omniscient presence in PNG, its commercial and artistic value has remained relatively hidden, until recently.

The bilum story is an incredible example of the transformative power of the creative and cultural industry. It shows just what is possible when emerging entrepreneurs are given effective access to international markets, are supported to strengthen their supply chains and are  empowered  to  share their creativity and culture with the world.

Over the years Australia, through the PNG-Australia Partnership, has supported entrepreneurs like – Florence Jaukae Kamel and her vision for the Goroka Bilum Festival, and provided strategic capacity building along the bilum value chain. Pacific Trade Invest Australia helped Florence and key artisans to take bilum to the world stage and find international buyers.

With a little help, the entrepreneurship and vision of these women can lead to great commercial success and inclusive economic growth. Many in the international market have become attracted to the unique beauty of the bilum and have contributed to the growth of international sales, through boutique fashion designers to several large international fashion retailers.

Capacity building along the bilum value chain, has in turn supported the growth of the industry and enhanced its financial sustainability. There is now a network of over a thousand weavers across the country, exporting bilum to the world, while increasing their income and wellbeing through culture and community.

“Our weavers are single mothers, women who people think have no value in the family. They are raising their children, paying their school fees, medical bills and building their own houses. And they are succeeding through bilum.” Florence Jakaue Kamel

While much has changed in ten years, the bilum story continues to unfold, with its full potential yet to be realised. It has taken ten years of experimentation, persistence and forging of relationships to get the bilum industry to where it is today. But for it to grow as a significant export opportunity for PNG it needs another 5-10 more years of strategic support to strengthen the supply chain and grow the industry.

And the demand is there, as Jessica from Bilum & Bilas shares, “The creative industry in Papua New Guinea is an untapped resource. There’s a real demand now in the marketplace for sustainable, ethical products with deep meaning and stories, that also give back to the makers.”

Culture and art are a source of identity, and can inspire creativity, innovation, and community-based entrepreneurship. The right investment into the creative and cultural industries could see it become a powerful driver of inclusive economic growth – empowering women, creating jobs, and fostering a stronger, more connected community.

“My hope is to see the Creative and Cultural Industries stand on their own, in their own right. Not [just] be rolled out when there’s a meeting or gathering but a real appreciation for the art and the intrinsic value that it adds to the national identity. It is the perfect vehicle for economic empowerment.” shares Ruth Choulai, Cultural Industry Advisor, Abt Associates.

The Australian High Commission sponsored film ‘The Bilum Story’ tells this story and it has been released for special viewing from 24 Feb – 10 March 2022 on www.thebilumstory.com

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