Betty Higgins owns a trout farm and lodge at the base of picturesque and remote Mt Wilhelm in Papua New Guinea. She sells trout to hotels across the country.
Her family offers treks up Mt Wilhelm, and visitors stay at her lodge.
Higgins is well-known and respected across PNG and while her story is one of success, it is also one of many struggles and her strength and resilience in the face of struggles.
She is deeply driven by contributing to the development of Papua New Guinea and by inspiring other women – especially young women.
“Just because you are a girl, just because you don’t have money, doesn’t mean you can’t pursue your dream,” she said.
“If you want to do something in your life – you have to continue, you have to face the challenges to make it. I will leave that footprint for young Papua New Guinean girls in the future.”
It is these things that make Higgins the ideal participant in the Laikim Sister pilot program. Laikim Sister is an initiative of the Australian government under PNG-Australia Partnership which looks to connect Indigenous Australian and PNG women entrepreneurs through a grassroots business exchange.
The program is the first of its kind, offering an exchange in each country where the women spend the week immersing themselves in story-telling and cultural and business experiences to learn about their shared narratives.
All the women in the program share stories like Higgins’ – stories of hardship and resilience in the face of their cultural, gender and business identities. In sharing their stories, the women were able to find strength in each other. For the cohort, Higgins’ story was particularly powerful.
The importance of female role models
In her own words, Higgins started as a poor child.
Her mother ran away when she was young, and she lived with her grandmother.
What her grandmother may have lacked in money, she made up for with love for Higgins and her sister. Despite being poor, Higgins still really wanted to go to school – so much so that she would work during the school breaks to be able to afford her own tuition.
“Education is for everyone. I am poor, other people are rich, but it doesn’t matter, we all go to school together. I wanted to become someone, and education is the key to everything.”
The other thing Higgins loved about school is that it exposed her to positive female role models. She was taught by female teachers and nuns, and when she went to the dispensary, she was looked after by female nurses.
Perhaps, this was where her own drive for inspiring young women was born.
The land will provide
“The first day I bought that land, I moved there, slipped on a canvas, and worked the land, and I’ve been on the ground since.”
Higgins and her husband bought the land at Mt Wilhelm in the 90s. First, she built a vegetable business from her land, selling to big hotels and supermarkets all over the country. She would drive her vegetables to Lae and Rabaul, but it became dangerous along the Highlands Highway, and Higgins was held up by rascals four times.
Her husband told her that enough was enough, she was not safe and had to stop. After that, she only sold at the local markets.
“We had no money. I had to do something different.” And just like that, Higgins decided to venture into trout farming.
To learn more, she travelled to Goroka trout farm to ask how to start a trout farm business. When that turned up nothing, she went to National Fisheries Association to ask for help, and they sent her to the Snowy Mountains in Australia to observe a successful trout farm in Tumut.
“I asked a lot of questions and took a lot of notes. I wanted to learn as much as I could,” Higgins shared.
“When I came back from Australia, I said to my husband ‘we have a good opportunity to grow trout’. He said ‘ok, seeing as I grounded you from vegetables, I will invest in the trout farm for you’.”
But it was not smooth sailing. They imported their first batch of fish eggs from Tasmania in 1993 but did not succeed in growing fish until 1996.
“Finally, in our fourth year I had a breakthrough, fertilised the eggs and they hatched. I wanted to go to Moresby and share [with the National Fisheries Association] to get help. But I couldn’t afford to, so they sent a delegation to my farm!”
Higgins proved to them that it could work. She had been able to grow fish by herself through trial and error; she would start small scale, and she would even farm worms for feed to save money on importing feed.
Her ingenuity did not stop there. She saw the potential of her land at the base of Mt Wilhelm and the opportunity to build a lodge providing tours and accommodation to visitors.
Though Higgins did not say it explicitly, you could understand the connection she had with the land. She cared for it, it provided for her.
“It’s my home, it’s my country. I want to see myself contributing to its development. And I want to send a message to the girls that if you think you can’t do school and can’t get a job, come back to the land and work your land.”
Business beyond the program
While Higgins’ story inspired others, she too was inspired by the other women in Laikim Sister.
“At first, I didn’t think I should be here in the program. I thought, I’m doing agriculture and farming and everybody seems to be doing something else. Maybe I won’t get anything out of this… But then the women started sharing and I realised from their stories about tourism… I’m in tourism.”
In each interaction with participants, Higgins found a connection or an idea for her next adventure.
She was inspired by Lina Singut, owner of Tamba Wut. Her business is focused on preserving the culture, knowledge and crafts of the women from the Middle Sepik.
“Our culture is our identity,” said Higgins.
“If we don’t maintain it, we will drift and forget where we belong.
“Now I’m thinking about the women performing or selling artefacts and bilum. Being from a remote area, and my culture is untapped and now I’m thinking there should be a Mt Wilhelm show.
“My place is full of culture! I think to myself why does no one make money? I haven’t been concentrating on that. But now this is where I’m going to focus. For the launch of my new lodge next year – when I open it, I will emphasise the culture and maintain it and will pass it on to the next generation.”
In speaking to other women in the program, Higgins saw potential for other business opportunities in her community that would create jobs – true to her mission of developing her nation.
“I spoke to the coffee lady, Nellie. We grow the best coffee in PNG [at Mt Wilhelm]! But we have no way to get it out, there’s no roads.
“So, I said to Nellie, you will have to help me with coffee. You can come to my home, and you can see the coffee plot, I don’t have to run it, but someone will want to.
“Then, I was speaking to the spice lady, Theresa. At my home, we have the biggest cardamom farm in PNG. Indians were running it, but it closed up. They grew mustard and cardamom, but now it just lays idle. But Theresa had given me inspiration – she is already doing it, we don’t have to find a market, we can sell to her.
“My biggest takeaway from this program so far is that I’m not alone. We’re all sharing a common goal of achieving our goals and dreams and we are all contributing to the development of our nation or people.”
The women in the Laikim Sister will meet again in Cairns early next year. In Cairns, they will have the opportunity to immerse in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island traditions, share more stories about business and develop their trade relationships further.
(Betty Higgins proudly displays a trout from her fish farm. She supplies trout to hotels across the country)