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FEATURE STORY March 9, 2021

Leading the Way in PNG: Emma Wakpi


For International Women’s Day 2021, we’re sitting down with women leaders across East Asia and the Pacific who are working towards a more equal future in a COVID-19 world. Meet them all. In 2015, Emma Wakpi decided to use her 15 years of experience in the health sector to empower communities in Papua New Guinea to fund and direct their own health prevention activities – and a cup of delicious coffee is the first step.   

How did you end up working in the health sector?

I grew up in two settings. I lived in Tabubil in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and then the capital, Port Moresby, until ninth grade, and then I moved to a small rural town called Warwick in Queensland, Australia to finish high school. I then pursued my Business Management degree in Australia and finished in 2000.

After that I worked with a church health entity, EBC Health Services, for nearly 15 years doing administrative work. At the time, the PNG Government decided to pursue a vigorous health campaign called Healthy Islands to drive health promotion and education with people in rural and remote areas. I discovered that health prevention and promotion was my passion. We worked with the World Health Organization (WHO) definition of health: that ‘health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.

EBC is one of 27 agencies that does rural health care delivery, and in PNG that's about 40 percent of the total health care delivery. About 80 per cent of all rural and remote healthcare in PNG is covered by church health agencies.

Why did you decide to leave EBC and branch out on your own?

In 2015, government funding was slowing, and I started to think about what I could do. My family lives in the second largest coffee growing region in PNG, and we could see a lot of farmers were replacing coffee trees with fast cash crops, like cabbage and carrots. There was no incentive for the farmers to grow coffee as a commodity because the cost of labor was not worth it. 

So, I started researching specialty coffee and looked at working with roasters to give farmers a better price. Now, I'm using the coffee business to create funding so we can go out into the community and provide  mental health support, training and facilitation.

We cultivate relationships with the farmers in their tribal groupings. And then, within those tribal groupings, we go back after the coffee season and do community development training. And in that way, we incorporate the idea of holistic development. It's about mobilizing communities to take ownership of their own health, so the community is driving their own development rather than us pushing an agenda on them.

Do you think there are any challenges or opportunities that the pandemic has presented for women in PNG?

PNG women have been really resilient during this time. People are realizing that we can work just as well as men under pressure. Although land in PNG belongs to the men, it's the women that take care of the coffee. The majority of the picking and selling is done by women. When the women bring the coffee in for sale, we sit and talk about how the money they earn can be used and budgeted for school fees and other expenses – it’s the women who are mostly in charge of the household finances. During the pandemic, it's the women who have been enquiring about how to make more money from their coffee, and how to best use the money they have.

This year's IWD theme is 'Women in Leadership'. Is there a female leader that inspires you? 

Dame Carol Kidu is someone that I have always looked up to, especially because she realized the importance of supporting the informal sector. There are so many women. Just down the road from me is Lily Be’Soer and she works to rescue women from domestic violence and sorcery accusations. She’s fearless. She has created a safe house for women, and her work is so inspiring.

What advice would you give Pacific women in 2021? 

Be confident in your skills and your abilities and find people that support you. Don't hide your talents and don't wait for people to come and discover it for you but try and find the support system and network that you need. Surround yourself with supportive networks. 

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**The views expressed in this interview do not necessarily represent the views of the World Bank Group and its employees.