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Persistence: How Paul Kurai became a tycoon

Wasa bridge launch
Worth waiting for - the launching of the Wasa bridge

DANIEL KUMBON

WABAG – Beginning in the 1950s and until the 1970s, Kurai Tapus - the ‘bosboi’ - and his people built Wabag with spades, wooden digging sticks, picks, axes, shovels, crowbars, bush knives and with their bare hands.

It took many weeks for hundreds of men to carve winding roads around the sides of mountains or through rugged terrain or unstable swampy grassland.

Their deafening yodels and work songs could be heard surging throughout the valleys.

The sturdy thick set men stood in long lines to pull huge logs chopped from the forests to become sturdy bearers on new bridges.

They would sometimes tumble backwards on top of each other when the weight of hundreds of men broke the rope.

They would burst into laughter as they found themselves sprawled on the ground in embarrassing positions.

And then they would get into line again to resume hauling the logs before they retired for the night before returning early next day.

It was a routine that continued for five days each week until the job was complete.

Pit-saw teams were equally busy slicing logs into planks to use as decking on the new bridges or to build schools, aid-posts and office buildings at the government patrol post.

Freshly sawn planks were moved on bare shoulders before tractors were introduced for such work.

Kurai Tapus and his Kamainwan people offered the kiaps [patrol officers] a whole forest of hardwood trees (tatto in the local language) to harvest and mill. Even today, rotting tree stumps, pit-saw sites and decaying piles of saw dust abound the hillsides.

The same scenes were common in many parts of Enga and the densely populated highlands region during these times when the kiaps mobilised local people to build and to develop teir ancient lands.

Bob Cleland, a kiap involved in building the Highlands Highway, dedicated his 2010 book Big Road to the proud and resourceful people – more than a million of them - and the kiaps who had worked so hard to open the highlands to the world outside.

Bob dedicated his book to the:

“….unaccounted thousands of highlands people who worked so hard and so willingly…hundreds of kiaps, my colleagues, who so effectively organised those people…scores of people inside the administration and in private business whose support made it that much easier”

Bob worked in PNG for 23 years, reaching the position of Assistant District Commissioner, his ultimate boss being his own father, Sir Donald Cleland, Administrator for 15 years (1952 to 1967) at a crucial stage of the then Territory’s development. Sir Donald was also Kurai Tapus’s ultimate boss.

Like his father, Kurai Tapus, before him, Paul Kiap Kurai decided to make his contribution towards the development of PNG in a big way.

After struggling at first, he found he had a talent for business, eventually establishing Kay-Star Construction – his second company.

Unlike his father and his people who had to use primitive tools, Paul employed large machines to build roads and bridges, and not only in Enga but the rest of the country.

Given his background in politics, Paul Kurai also established friendships with many politicians, some of whom awarded him major contracts in districts across PNG.

In the early stages, three parliamentarians from his own province - Kandep’s Don Polye, Wapenamanda’s Masket Iangalio and Enga Governor Sir Peter Ipatas - engaged him in several projects.

They recognised his efforts to remain in Enga when other businessmen moved to other provinces, fearing their business might be destroyed during tribal warfare.

Don Polye initially commissioned Paul Kurai’s newly established K-Star Construction to build the Wasa Bridge project. Funding of K3 million was budgeted over a period of two years but proved insufficient to build Wasa bridge over the Lai river.

From the start it was evident the project would have problems. First, K-Star Construction was fairly new and had no established engineers except a Department of Works engineer who supervised part time.

Also a proper project evaluation, costing and feasibility study had not been done. The Works engineer recommended that more funding was required and an experienced well-established construction company engaged.

The Lai River flows south through a wide stretch of swampland between Imali and Wasa villages. Its source is the great swampland of Kandep with many lakes teeming with wildlife particularly swamp birds.

The other great swampland feeds the Mariant River a few kilometres further south where the two rivers meet to make their way towards Mendi in Southern Highlands Province.  

A speed boat, ‘Kandep Queen’, used to operate on the waterways in both the swamplands. It was an initiative of Jim Fenton, one of the early kiaps posted to Kandep. Jim, and other kiaps like Lloyd Warr who came later, built a wooden bridge over the river to connect with Wage census division.

The kiaps engaged almost all the local people from Wage and Mariant to build a narrow road through the swamp from Imali village to Wasa all the way down to Magarima in Hela Province.

After independence, a permanent iron bridge was built. Traffic increased and some stretches of the road across the swampland began to sink. A truck overturned and disappeared into the murky depths. Then a permanent lake formed cutting off Hela Province completely.

This was when Don Polye engaged K-Star Construction to start building a new road and bridge across the river. When the project ground to a halt because of funding problems, it was about 80% complete.

Polye, then Treasurer in Peter O’Neill’s People’s National Congress-led government applied for a K500 million loan from the Asian Development Bank to fund a number of important projects in Enga, Southern Highlands and the new Hela Province.

Francis Awesa at Wasa Bridge
Joyful Works Minister Francis Awesa launches the  new bridge (Don Polye centre back)

From that loan, K35 million was allocated for the Wasa bridge, an important link as plans were developing for the K25 billion PNG LNG project in Hela.

At 320 metres, the bridge was going to be one of the longest in PNG. Finally it was commissioned on 20 December 2013 by Works Minister Francis Awesa with more than a dozen other ministers in attendance.

Paul had felt relieved when K-Star Construction was not awarded the contract. But his other companies were doing well, awarded contracts to build a section of the Kandep Mendi highway, to seal roads in Kandep town and to build the Treasury office.

When the PNG LNG project commenced production a beehive of economic activity was expected to propel the district forward. It was expected that the area torn apart by tribal war would wake up to reality and participate in the economic boom.

Other road projects announced included Kandep–Mendi, Kiakau-Pangu, Kandep–Margarima, and Pangu-Laiagam. Works Minister Awesa said Kandep would be transformed from a forgotten backwater to a highlands hub linked to the LNG rich Hela and Gulf provinces.

“One of these days Kandep will become a major centre,” he said. “These roads will go to Porgera and on to Kikori and Kerema.

“The government has made a major decision for infrastructure development. Kandep will be transformed into a major centre.”

But when Don Polye was sacked as Treasurer, work on the Wasa bridge stalled. The K35 million budget was withdrawn by prime minister O’Neill. The millions of kina announced for the other road projects road were also diverted.

During the 2017 national elections, when O’Neill came to Kandep to endorse Alfred Manase to stand against Don Polye on his PNC party ticket, he said his government would build Kandep airstrip, seal the Kandep-Laiagam road and construct the Wasa bridge.

O’Neill did not explain, nor did any opposing candidates have the courage to ask him what had happened to the initial funding of K35 million for the Wasa bridge and K70 million for the Kandep–Margarima road.

Ultimately, Manase defeated Polye and O’Neill allocated K12 million for the bridge project which was awarded to a Ialibu-based engineering firm.

Meanwhile, Paul Kurai continued to invest heavily in K-Star Construction which soon had a well-maintained fleet of backhoes, tipper trucks, excavators, rollers and dump trucks.

K-Star was increasingly involved in road building, upgrading, sealing and bridge construction in the highlands region. It employed a reputable workforce of civil engineers and surveyors.

And now, some of its machinery was involved in the rich LNG project.

Kurai now had a policy of completing projects using his own funds when initial allocations were exhausted. It has become his trademark not to abandon an incomplete project awarded to his companies if funds run out.

This has been one of his strategies to keep winning major contracts for his companies over a period of nearly thirty years.

Road sealing, bridge building, housing construction, classrooms and moving into trucking, hardware, real estate, vehicle rental and the hotel industry. And so Paul Kurai became a tycoon.

The Ribito Hotel in the heart of Wabag town in 2009 was a testimony to his enterprise. Its first clients were prime minister Sir Michael Somare and other senior politicians.

The Neneo Group then built a second motel - Ribito Two - at Warakum near his home in Mt Hagen.

These days the Neneo Group employs about 400 people and has more than K160 million in assets spread across Port Moresby, Mt Hagen, Manus, Kimbe and Enga.

The story of Paul Kurai had not always been an easy one, but it has been a successful one. And he us still pleased to be running – and growing – his compaies.

The ‘bosboi’, Kurai Tapus, his beloved father, would be very proud of him.

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