Coffee, market economy and informality in late colonial Papua New Guinea

John Conroy presentation image

Set in Goroka in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG) where coffee became the staple export crop after the second world war, this paper explores how a variant of Keith Hart’s informal economy emerged among indigenous Gorokans. Colonial administration was established in the region – quickly recognized as an almost uniquely well-favoured (‘lucky’) place – only during the 1930s. The attempt, bound to create friction with an Australian government intent on honouring its ‘trusteeship’ obligations, was made by a small group of settlers and local colonial officials to establish a ‘anachronistic’ white planter community. Most observers agree that, from the mid-1940s when Gorokans were introduced to monetized economic activity, and to the establishment soon after of ‘European’ commercial plantations and Gorokan coffee smallholdings, indigenous people moved with remarkable speed to accommodate themselves to market norms. Against this consensus it is argued here that, together with the phenomenon of widespread informality, the occurrence of hybridity in Gorokan market dealings suggests an alternative conclusion. This is that the triumph of capitalism by the time of Independence in 1975 may have been exaggerated, due to the operation of an uneasy trio of formality, informality and hybridity.

John Conroy lived and worked in PNG over the period 1970-1981, where he lectured in Economics at the University of Papua New Guinea, and served for four years, 1977-81, as Director of the PNG Institute of Applied Social and Economic Research (predecessor of the present National Research Institute). Subsequently, during the 1980s, he lived and worked in Indonesia for six years. He is currently a Visiting Fellow in the Crawford School, Australian National University. John is preparing a monograph on the idea of the informal economy and its application to PNG. This is the last in a series of papers, to be abridged for publication as a monograph. All previous papers are available online at

Updated:  20 March 2023/Responsible Officer:  Bell School Marketing Team/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team