A Story of Selling: Bilum in the Marketplace

By Asia Foundation

Photos by Ái Vuong and Samuel Diaz Fernandez (TÁPI Story)

The story of bilum begins in the remote villages where they are weaved in small communities. But the journey a bilum bag from weaver to owner is a long path. Let's start at the marketplace.

Gateway Market (2018)Asia Foundation

Port Moresby: "The Beginning"

“Port Moresby is not where the bilum story starts but it is where the bilum story ends.” Those are the words of Gilda, a Port Moresby woman who serves as a broken for other bilum weavers.

Interview with Florence Kamel: Challenges women weavers in PNG face in selling bilum (2018)Asia Foundation

Bilum Mamas of Holiday Inn Market (2018)Asia Foundation

Village women often work with a middleman (or in some cases a middlewoman) to take their bags to Port Moresby, which is the only port of call for foreign cruise ships.

The Bilum in Boroko Market (2018)Asia Foundation

The Markets

There, the broker will either sell directly to tourists or work with another seller set up in a local market.

The Holiday Inn Market (2018)Asia Foundation

Some bilum makers live in the slums surrounding Port Moresby, but the proximity to popular markets – and to foreign buyers – doesn’t translate to increased profits.

Sellng natural fibers at the Holiday Inn Market (2018)Asia Foundation

The more people involved in the sale, however, the less money bilum makers earn for their bags.

Weaving at the Holiday Inn Market (2018)Asia Foundation

A single bag can take two to three weeks to make, and women who sell the bags themselves in Port Moresby find a challenging road both literally and figuratively. Public transportation is nonexistent here, and the privately-run bus services are unreliable at best and dangerous at worst.

Women Sellers of Boroko Market (2018)Asia Foundation

The Urban Weavers

A bilum weaver named Jennifer, who lives in the Eight Mile settlement of Port Moresby (so named because of its distance from the city center) said on any given day, she may find herself waiting an hour or more for a bus, carrying her inventory with her the entire way. By the time she arrives at the market, she’s lost considerable time and selling opportunities. But unpredictability isn’t the only issue with the buses. Women face risks of assault as well, and Jennifer recounted having been held at knifepoint on the bus. Taxis are available in Port Moresby, but they’re prohibitively expensive for the weavers. A one-way fare can cost 30 kina, equivalent to the sale of one bilum bag.   

Across the Boroko Market (2018)Asia Foundation

Women who bring their own wares to the Port Moresby markets must carry their inventory there and home again each day. For a time, some used a nearby warehouse to store their unsold bags until the next morning. But when the warehouse burned down, they had no other options and began hauling their bilum back and forth again.

The Boroko Market (2018)Asia Foundation

While they can earn money selling their bags, bilum weaving isn’t a lucrative means of generating income, at least as it stands today.

Bilum from Sepik Bilum from Sepik (2018)Asia Foundation

Between the brokers and the sale of synthetic bilum, reaching tourists with their handcrafted goods is challenging. And the amount of time spent traveling to the market detracts from their profits as well.

The Bilum in Boroko Market (2018)Asia Foundation

When a consumer buys one bilum bag, they can feed 14-15 people with that single purchase. But how customers buy bilum products, and from whom, matters a great deal.

Gilda (2018)Asia Foundation

The Market Broker

Gilda became an advocate for bilum weavers after an abusive partner beat her so badly she needed to be hospitalized. Domestic violence is rampant in the country, and Gilda saw all too clearly what’s at stake for women who are unable to support themselves financially and therefore become dependent on violent, abusive partners.

The Gateway Market (2018)Asia Foundation

Today, Gilda strives to broker sales of locally-made bilum to foreign consumers so that the women with whom she works can earn more from their craft and gain a greater sense of personal agency and financial autonomy.

Bilum from Popondetta Bilum from Popondetta (2018)Asia Foundation

Gilda arranges sales via email or through platforms such as Facebook and WhatsApp. Bilum weavers are unlikely to have business cards, let alone digital storefronts for their goods, especially because internet is expensive and unreliable in Papua New Guinea.

The Bilum in Boroko Market (2018)Asia Foundation

Brokers and sellers in Australia, on the other hand, are quick to produce business cards and to share information about their websites, making it far easier for them to get in front of international buyers.

Bilum from Popondetta Bilum from Popondetta (2018)Asia Foundation

APEC App Challenge 2018

Fortunately, Papua New Guinea’s young entrepreneurs and developers value bilum deeply and they know what’s at stake. At the 2018 APEC App Challenge, which was held in Port Moresby in May, teams signed up for a hackathon to create a digital platform that would enable local bilum makers to sell to international customers.

The APEC App Challenge 2018 (2018)Asia Foundation

Crystal Kewe, founder of Biluminous App (2018)Asia Foundation

The Digital Entrepreneur

Crystal Kewe, a 20-year-old business owner, and her father won the competition with their app Biluminous. The app is designed to help women easily showcase their bags for potential buyers around the globe. Such online platforms can help bridge the gap between local artisans and broader markets, giving them greater control over how their bags are sold and a greater take-home profit.

Interview with Crystal Kewe: How technology can provide economic opportunity (2018)Asia Foundation

Bilum from Sepik Bilum from Sepik (2018)Asia Foundation

Such online platforms can help bridge the gap between local artisans and broader markets, giving them greater control over how their bags are sold and a greater take-home profit.

Bilum from Bena Village Bilum from Bena Village (2018)Asia Foundation

Women may weave the bilum bags, but all Papua New Guineans recognize the craft’s value to the country’s past and future. As Willy, one young male entrepreneur, said during the hackathon, “Bilum is the backbone of Papua New Guinea.”

Credits: Story

Created by:
TÁPI Story

Images + Sound:
Ái Vuong
Samuel Díaz Fernández

Casey Hynes

Field Producers:
Gobie Rajalingam
Benjamin Lokshin

Special thank to Florence Kamel, Gilda Lasibori, Sharlene Gawi, and the women of Bena Bena Village

Executive Producer: John Karr

Commissioned by:
The Asia Foundation

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Google apps