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Apps for artisans: Boosting bilum with the APEC App Challenge

June 12th, 2018

Developers from across Asia-Pacific gathered in Port Moresby to brainstorm ways to help Papua New Guinean artisans and entrepreneurs.

At Google, we believe that every business can be an online business and any industry a digital one. At first glance, the traditional handicraft sector in Papua New Guinea may seem an unlikely beneficiary of digital transformation. The art of making traditional bilum (a string bag woven from plant reeds), for example, is passed down from generation to generation. Today, even the most skilled bilum-weavers sell their creations primarily by word of mouth.

Bilum Weavers
Papua New Guinean artisans weaving bilums with their typically intricate geometric patterns and bright colors. Photo courtesy of Ruth Choulai.

But the talented software developers in Asia-Pacific love a challenge. Last month, we teamed up with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Secretariat for the second time and worked with the Papua New Guinean government and the Asia Foundation to bring together 11 dynamic developer teams for the 2018 APEC App Challenge.

We challenged them to build an app that would help bilum artisans and entrepreneurs in Papua New Guinea. Over 24 hours, our contestants created amazing apps, using cutting-edge technologies like blockchain and virtual reality to create real-world solutions for Papua New Guinea’s bilum weavers.

Jonathan and Crystal Kewe, a father-daughter duo from Papua New Guinea, won first prize for “Biluminous,” an app designed to help rural artisans connect with customers in Papua New Guinea. With their win, they gain financial and technical support to roll their app out nationwide.

Nineteen year-old Crystal is a self-taught programmer who co-founded a technology consulting business with her dad when she was only 17. Combining her programming skills with her father’s business expertise and deep local knowledge, she was able to leverage modern technology to help traditional artisans grow their businesses.

The Kewes
Jonathan and Crystal Kewe pitching their app Biluminous at the 2018 APEC App Challenge. Photo courtesy of the APEC Secretariat.

Australian pair Venus Izadi and Kelly Benson, won second prize for their “Bilum Original” platform, which uses a matchmaking algorithm to connect compatible bilum buyers and makers over SMS. Vietnamese developers Nguyen Duc Hiep and Ngo Minh Quoc Hung took the third prize for a program based on blockchain technology that authenticates individual products made by local artisans.

App developers
Developers from Malaysia and Chile learn exchanging their bright ideas during the 2018 APEC App Challenge.

Digital tools, like the apps developed at this year’s APEC App Challenge, make a real difference for artisans and small business owners. Research from the Asia-Pacific MSME Trade Coalition shows that digital tools reduce exporting costs for Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) by up to 82 per cent—a transformative cost reduction that is helping more and more MSMEs make their first export.

Over the next few months, Crystal and Jonathan will roll out their winning app to bilum weavers in rural Papua New Guinea, helping them reach more customers and earn more income for their beautiful work. We’re excited to see how Bituminous lights the path for Papua New Guinean artisans and developers.

Watch how the 2018 APEC App Challenge came together here.