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.
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.