Q&A: Crystal Kewe blazes trail for PNG artisans

Crystal Kewe-main
At 17 years old, Crystal Kewe, put up a a software development company with her father. Copyright: Ai Vuong. This image has been cropped.

Speed read

  • Barely in her 20s, PNG’s rising tech star has already caught global attention for her work
  • One such work is the ‘Biluminous’ app which will directly connect artisans to markets
  • Her company’s projects help prepare PNG’s digital landscape for future

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[MANILA] In 2015, access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure and services in Papua New Guinea (PNG) was among the lowest, globally. Only about one per cent of the population, largely concentrated in the urban areas, had steady Internet connection.

It was in this setting that software engineer Crystal Kewe, then 17, put up with her entrepreneur father, Jonathan, a software development company operating out of Port Moresby in PNG. Starting out with two employees, they had, within a year, established off-shore development platforms in Poland and Brazil with a combined team of over 20 engineers, analysts, and project managers.

“I am always driven to ensure that I continue to deliver [according] to expectations, and that I consistently work towards raising the bar one success after another”

Crystal Kewe, Crysan Technology

Today, Kewe, who started out at Crysan Technology as its only web designer, is the chief executive officer and head of the company. She oversees local and international engineers in South-East Asia, South America, and Europe. She’s been her company’s senior software developer, software engineer, technical director, and most recently, chief technical officer.

Last year, Kewe undertook to revolutionise e-commerce for artisans in PNG at the 2018 APEC App Challenge, where she and her father represented PNG. Participants at the 24-hour hackathon, held in Port Moresby, were asked to come up with a digital model to help PNG’s marginalised artisans, mainly women, who hand-weave colourful string bags called bilums. The father-daughter team conceptualised and developed the Biluminous app, ultimately winning the Challenge.

Thanks to their success at the Challenge, Crysan secured partnerships with Google, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Asia Foundation. Affiliations with Westpac and MasterCard followed. Most importantly, Kewe’s award-winning app paved the way for PNG’s — and eventually Asia Pacific’s — artisans to improve their craft, earn better, and become financially literate and independent.

“Biluminous is an artisan-centric platform that unifies artisans throughout PNG and the [rest of] Asia Pacific to help promote the hearts, hands and minds behind all traditional handicrafts featured and sold on the platform,” says Kewe. “When the full platform launches, it will [also] feature handicrafts such as carvings, baskets and traditional wear — necklaces, bracelets, anklets, etc.”

Kewe speaks with SciDev.Net about her award-winning app, the region’s digital landscape, and her goal to show the world a more ethical way to use technology.

Walk us through what it was like at the 2018 APEC App Challenge.

The challenge was to identify one pain point, or a series of related pain points [for bilum weavers and their buyers], to focus on and develop our app and digital solution around. The key was to address critical pain points while ensuring that the solution was easy to implement, considering the geographical landscape of PNG and the availability of reliable bandwidth and network coverage; the lack of digital literacy amongst ordinary Papua New Guineans; the ease of use and intuitiveness of the app; and of course, the costs and the level of technical support and maintenance it would require.

Crystal Kewe

Crystal Kewe at the 2018 APEC App Challenge. Photo credit: Vanessa Kerton/Madness Photography

How did you develop Biluminous to be different from other e-commerce sites?

After a fair amount of time looking at and analysing the above pain points, we figured that it’s pretty easy to develop and launch another e-commerce platform, and there are many out there these days that you can use to easily set up your own online shop in less than five clicks — examples include Shopify, WooCommerce, Magento, CSCart, etc. So instead of focusing on creating yet another e-commerce platform that just does what a traditional e-commerce store would do, we figured, “How about we focus instead on the weaver and the provenance of the bilum?”

We focused on not only providing an e-commerce platform that sells bilums online, but also one that helps to capture, document and publish the story of rural bilum weavers and their traditional bilums. The key finding we discovered about the market is that buyers don’t necessarily care about the price/cost of the bilum, or how efficiently you can sell online. Buyers buy because [of] the value that a product carries and the passion behind it. So, a high-quality bilum can cost a good deal of money. But if it carries a beautiful story expressed by a struggling single mother of five in a remote village in PNG, [people] will buy it. That’s what Biluminous is all about. We want our artisans to produce their handicraft to specific international, high-quality standards, be able to transport their products to a central warehouse in Port Moresby, sell their products through Biluminous, and receive 100 per cent value for their sold products, including additional percentage-based profit made off every single profitable transaction.

What is the technological landscape like in PNG? Is it ready for advanced digital tools such as the Biluminous app?

We are a third-world developing economy…that is very much still rooted in our cultural and ancestral ways. Adjusting to the modern, rapidly advancing technological world is a whole new universe from where we currently are. This is not to say that we cannot embrace the digital future, but that we still have a lot to do to charter a course that well equips our country and people to smoothly transition from where we are to where we need to be.

The good news for PNG is that, in recent years, the country has become more and more acquainted with digital technology, especially with the advent of smartphones and social media platforms. The recent cuts to data and voice costs, including the availability of affordable mobile phones, have seen more and more people starting to use smartphones and access the Internet for various needs and applications. However, education is still a major concern to the greater population and still plays a key role in ensuring that our people are fully equipped to utilise the benefits of technology the appropriate way.

How are these factors shaping your priorities?

My key priorities [now] lie in conceptualising and introducing critical digital tools and platforms that help to automate, simplify, and address key development and business challenges that hinder essential socio-economic progress in the country. Biluminous is a classic example of how such a platform and initiative will help to change the business, economic and technological landscape of the country.

Global brands such as Google and the Asia Foundation have partnered up with you for Biluminous. What impact will this international support have on PNG’s digital future?

These global partnerships…fundamentally help highlight the importance of digital initiatives such as Biluminous, and the significant contributions they can make today and into the future for micro- small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in the region. What’s even more significant about these partnerships is the fact that these brands provide tremendous credibility and visibility to Biluminous, helping to endorse it as a brand that can be trusted and one that is established to really make a difference in the lives of ordinary people and small business operators.

With such partnerships behind Biluminous, we now have an international platform that we can leverage to further connect and partner with various other brands to help support the many initiatives that Biluminous is looking to address.

Examples of these include our strong and growing partnerships with institutions like Westpac PNG/Australia/Fiji, and MasterCard Pacific (New Zealand and Sydney) who are supporting us with the setup and integration of PNG’s first ever successful integrated payment gateway and online payment system. This is…one of our major milestones in developing and setting up a platform such as Biluminous in the country. E-commerce participation here in PNG, and especially the Pacific, is still a new phenomenon, and one that’s only accessible to large corporations and businesses.

Farther from home, on an international scale, how do you see technology shaping the world?

On a global stage, the world is rapidly changing with new technologies being developed at a staggering pace that’s never been seen before. The world is becoming increasingly connected with technology [as] a central part of almost all aspects of our personal and social lives. As a result, my efforts for the world to embrace the digital future will be at a different, much higher level than that of PNG. I would ultimately hope to direct the world towards a more ethical and conscious role in the use of technology. As we become a society that is increasingly exposed to more and more technology, there will come a point very soon when the lines between existing in the physical world become blurred with much of our focus and attention buried in the virtual world of digital technology.

At 21, you are one of the world’s youngest CEOs of a software development company. Has this ever posed any challenges for you?

Most of the challenges I…face…are very much concerned with the fact that I’ve set a very high benchmark for myself and for others, especially young women in the country and the region. I commonly have a reputation [for] coming across to* people as highly intellectual and mature beyond my age. This creates a high expectation from society of the level I should be performing at and the kind of success I should be achieving. As a consequence, I am always driven to ensure that I continue to deliver [according] to expectations, and that I consistently work towards raising the bar one success after another. I personally feel that my life and journey is an uphill climb, where the older I get, and the higher in life I go, the higher I have to keep climbing. For me, there is no plan B, no back-up plan, and certainly no escape plan. I have only one plan and that is to keep going forward. Failure is not an option for me. Whether I win or not, I will die committed to this path.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

* This article was amended on 30 August 2019 to add "to" to the indicated section.