Press Release

Going Digital: Bilum and Blockchain in Papua New Guinea

03/06/2018

There is much to cover. Papua New Guinea is currently leading APEC’s membership in addressing even issues emerging for mature economies such as middle-class urban populations, ageing demographics, data privacy and anti-globalization pressures.

By Dr Alan Bollard, Executive Director of the APEC Secretariat

No one knew what to expect during the two-day meeting in Port Moresby last month among the trade ministers of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) members. A joint statement was issued—reflecting the prevailing views of members—despite ongoing trade tensions among the largest Asia-Pacific economies.

In this joint release, APEC’s trade ministers once again committed to the forum’s goal of achieving free and open trade and investment in the Asia-Pacific region by 2020, and likewise recommitted to contribute towards eventually realizing a Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific.

But while talk of traditional trade has not seen as much global attention as this year, it is only one of the many topics covered within APEC. Papua New Guinea’s leadership as chair and host is steering member economies towards more focused work on issues surrounding the internet, digital trade and inclusive growth.

There is much to cover. Papua New Guinea is currently leading APEC’s membership in addressing even issues emerging for mature economies such as middle-class urban populations, ageing demographics, data privacy and anti-globalization pressures.

In some respects, Papua New Guinea is an outlier. Unlike other economies within APEC, it has limited services trade; relatively low incomes; a young workforce and a mostly rural-based, unconnected population. However, these characteristics give Papua New Guinea its own set of advantages and areas of focus. A lot of work is going into the promotion of e-commerce for very small businesses and digital opportunities for remote populations.

Papua New Guinea’s central bank, for example, has been on a mission to solve the economy’s financial inclusion problem, which is a multi-layered one considering that 85 per cent of the population do not have bank accounts, only 18 per cent live in urban centers and only 20 per cent have access to electricity.

There is a silver lining in that more than 75 per cent of Papua New Guineans have an SMS-capable mobile phone, which gives way to an elegant solution centered on blockchain.

The same technology that makes cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin possible could also secure a person’s digital identity, which is necessary when accessing certain government services. A digital ID secured in the blockchain will give registrants the ability to prove their identity for digital transactions—the importance of which is lost to people in more connected areas but is something that 1.5 billion people around the globe cannot do.

In order to get this technology to unconnected and unpowered communities, the Bank of Papua New Guinea (BPNG) is rolling out a device called an IDBox—an inexpensive, plastic, solar-powered contraption that records and encrypts personal identification based on fingerprints and mobile phone numbers. Once a person is registered, this ID can be used for even the most sensitive activities, such as voting, accessing health care or sending and receiving remittances.

Innovations such as this offer clarity to those who would ask why Papua New Guinea—which is not a technological leader and has very limited broadband—chose “embracing the digital future” as its theme for hosting APEC in 2018. It is because Papua New Guinea provides a fertile environment for genuinely inclusive digital opportunities to take root. And some of these innovations are home grown.

The agenda of the pivotal meeting between APEC’s trade ministers last week included initiatives designed to widen the access and use of digital technologies. Alongside discussions of regional connectivity and market integration were a few moments set aside to recognize the winners of the 2018 APEC App Challenge.

Among the winners were a local daughter-father team, Crystal and Jonathan Kewe, who developed a platform that allows local weavers to showcase their traditional Papua New Guinean sling bags, called bilums, and that connects them with buyers online and across the border.

The Kewes are a fine example of Papua New Guinean innovation. Crystal taught herself computer programming and is now the chief technology officer of a software development company that she founded alongside her father. In designing her winning entry, she looked at the challenges that beset informal enterprises locally. In doing so, she has identified scalable concepts for online platforms that can be used to grow informal economies in the Asia-Pacific region and around the world.

With APEC 2018 well under way in Papua New Guinea, the drive to innovate and create solutions for the challenges facing mature and developing economies alike will only gain more momentum.