Q&A: Genevieve Nel­son, CEO of the Kokoda Track Foun­da­tion

The chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Kokoda Track Foun­da­tion (KTF) tells how the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s hu­man­i­tar­ian work is now spread­ing far be­yond the track, de­liv­er­ing ed­u­ca­tion, health and even so­lar light­ing to ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties across the coun­try.

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Q: What is KTF?

A: It’s an Aus­tralian non-govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion that op­er­ates all of its ac­tiv­i­ties in Pa­pua New Guinea. We were founded in 2003 and in the first decade we worked solely along, and around, the Kokoda Track. We de­liver pro­grams in ed­u­ca­tion, health and lead­er­ship. We do things like build schools, train teach­ers and com­mu­nity health work­ers, fund jobs for teach­ers and health work­ers, pro­vide med­i­cal re­sources and de­liver ed­u­ca­tion sup­plies – all in part­ner­ship with provin­cial gov­ern­ments. We also built and op­er­ate the Kokoda Col­lege, a ter­tiary training fa­cil­ity. In the past 18 months we have rolled out a big so­lar light project called ‘Light Up PNG’, in part­ner­ship with So­larBuddy, and pro­vided 7500 so­lar lights across the coun­try.

Q: How long have you been in­volved with KTF?

A: I took over as the chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer in 2009, but I was one of the co-founders in 2003. There was a small group of us who had walked along the track. I did it as part of a univer­sity lead­er­ship schol­ar­ship at a time when trekker num­bers were low, but we all knew there would be a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease as peo­ple were learning more about Kokoda in Aus­tralian schools. I did my first Kokoda trek in 2000 and was one of only about 50 peo­ple, but in 2008 (when num­bers peaked) there were 6000. We wanted to form a foun­da­tion to be a con­duit of the good­will that we hoped would come from the trekking in­dus­try. It was a way to give back.

Q: And now you’ve ex­panded your work be­yond Kokoda?

A: We are work­ing across 16 prov­inces in the coun­try and our aim by 2020 is to be in all 22 prov­inces.

Q: One of your ma­jor pro­jects is ‘ Teach for To­mor­row’. Can you tell us about that?

A: About two years ago, we dis­cov­ered there was a large co­hort of par­tially trained ele­men­tary teach­ers, about 7000 across PNG, who had started their training but had never been given the op­por­tu­nity to com­plete it. There was a loom­ing dead­line that if teach­ers didn’t com­plete their training they would lose any qual­i­fi­ca­tions they had re­ceived to date, and in essence these 7000 would have to exit the teach­ing pro­fes­sion. These teach­ers are work­ing and vol­un­teer­ing – they are up­hold­ing the ele­men­tary sys­tem, par­tic­u­larly in ru­ral PNG. If they were to all lose qual­i­fi­ca­tions and have to walk away the whole thing (ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem) would be crip­pled. We thought we had to do some­thing about this … ed­u­ca­tion is our thing, it is our pas­sion. The Na­tional Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion au­tho­rised us to go into prov­inces and com­plete the training for as many teach­ers as we could. Over 18 months, we have trained 2300 teach­ers across 10 prov­inces and over the next six months we aim to train an­other 1500 teach­ers across four more prov­inces.

Q: It must be sat­is­fy­ing to be achiev­ing these pos­i­tive results at Kokoda and be­yond.

A: Ev­ery vil­lage along the track to­day has an op­er­at­ing ele­men­tary or pri­mary school and a health fa­cil­ity. That is worlds away from when I first went there in 2000, when I think there were just two schools. There are won­der­ful suc­cess sto­ries along the track. There has been ma­jor change. Is there need for more? Ab­so­lutely yes.

Q: How many times have you trekked Kokoda?

A: I did my 20th trek last Oc­to­ber.

Q: How would you de­scribe it?

A: Gru­elling. Kokoda is a long hard slog and you need to have the right mind­set. Five times harder is Mount Wil­helm (PNG’s high­est moun­tain). We at­tempted to get to the top in De­cem­ber but had to turn back one hour from the sum­mit be­cause of bad weather and the first signs of al­ti­tude sick­ness in our group. It was heart­break­ing to be that close and not get there.

The Kokoda trekking sea­son has started and will op­er­ate un­til about Novem­ber. For more in­for­ma­tion about KTF, see ktf.ngo.

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