Corporate philanthropy in Papua New Guinea – in conversation with the Digicel Foundation

Beatrice Mahuru crossing Buka passage
Ms Beatrice Mahuru crossing the Buka Passage in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville to launch projects

Ms Beatrice Mahuru is head of the Digicel Foundation in Papua New Guinea (PNG). As part of the Pacific Conversations series, she spoke to Dr Amanda Watson about the organisation’s areas of focus, its relationship to the Digicel business and her heart-warming experiences in the role.

Amanda: You were previously in corporate roles. Was it an adjustment to join the Digicel Foundation?

Beatrice: Moving into the development space was very new, but one of the things I brought was a corporate approach, so a ‘no-nonsense, get your business done, report on the outcome’ approach.

What do you do on a day-to-day basis in your role?

We have 34 projects at present, plus eight in collaboration with the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). My role is to watch over the foundation’s operations to ensure that our finances are managed well against our targets. I’m very hands-on, making sure program impacts are documented and that projects are progressing to the agreed timelines, because we have PNG Board and Global Board meetings every month and they are kept across our investments. I have a small team and sometimes development work can be overwhelming so I want to be there for them, to motivate them and keep them committed to the cause. I continue to build and foster relations with Digicel every day and grow goodwill with our marginalised communities. And every other day, I’m connecting with members of parliament or corporate organisations to seek possibilities for public-private partnerships.

You mentioned building goodwill … is that the main aim of the Digicel Foundation?

Prior to last year (FY14/15), we responded to community applications and we operated very separately to the business. We’re still a separate entity but our strategy is to work more collaboratively with Digicel. Although Digicel has invested in many towers across PNG, the business still receives negative feedback, especially through social media, on the cost of service. We grow goodwill through our development impact projects and lay the foundation on which business can follow. Last year, we probably put 40% of our investment into promoting goodwill and the rest was responding to applications received.

Some may be unclear as to the relationship between the Digicel Foundation and the Digicel company. Could you please explain the governance arrangements and the relationship between the two entities?

Although we’re funded by Digicel, we’re a separate entity because we’re set up that way and we have a separate board. But to ensure due diligence and sound financial management, our finances go through the business.

Digicel operates in 26 countries in the Caribbean and Central America and also six countries in the Pacific, but it has foundations in only four countries. Why was PNG picked as a country to have a foundation?

In the United Nations Human Development Index, we’re 156th out of 188 countries. That’s quite low, despite being a resource-rich nation. The Digicel Group Chairman Denis O’Brien believes that as Digicel grows, its communities must too. And when Digicel successfully entered the PNG market, Mr O’Brien felt it was necessary to invest back into the community, and that’s what we’ve been doing since.

The Digicel Foundation has spent over US$25 million in PNG. Does all your funding come from Digicel?              

We are funded wholly by Digicel. This is the first year in which we received grant funding from DFAT to implement education projects for them in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville. 15% of my budget goes on administration, such as staffing and travel.

The foundation initially focused on health and education. Do they remain important areas?

They remain core areas of focus. 60% of the foundation budget is spent on school infrastructure – classrooms with desks, plus office space, toilets, water tanks and solar lighting. The DFAT project in Bougainville will include Wi-Fi and an intranet containing educational materials. When a school requests infrastructure, they have to demonstrate good governance and community ownership. In fact, all potential partners are assessed using such criteria. We also have mobile health clinics that do their rounds and treat patients.

Children with Digicel Foundation Project Manager, Mr Haro Gomara, at the Sambio Rural Health Aid Post launch in remote Menyamya District, Morobe Province
Children with Digicel Foundation Project Manager, Mr Haro Gomara, at the Sambio Rural Health Aid Post launch in remote Menyamya District, Morobe Province

You have now added three other key focus areas: the elimination of violence, special needs, and community building. Why was violence a concern for the foundation?

As a Papua New Guinean, I’m very passionate about advocating against violence. It’s a social scourge. When they say that all men are violent, it gets me very upset because my father wasn’t. He believed in me before I realised my potential. I believe every PNG woman who holds a good role has had an amazing father behind her. So it’s in acknowledging those good men that we decided to start the Men of Honour awards. There are honourable men out there – let’s bring the stories forward.

What is the foundation doing in relation to special needs?

We work in close collaboration with Cheshire. We fund their community-based rehabilitation program in communities, settlements and villages. So many amazing stories have come out of that. I met a little girl who had her disability as a result of meningitis, so she wasn’t able to feed herself, talk or walk without aid. Six months after the program, the girl was walking without aid, and 18 months after the program, she’s able to read and has started school.

The fifth pillar of the foundation is community building. What is meant by community building?

Did you know that 60% of any urban population is made up of youth, aged between 16 and 25? We developed a program in partnership with Ginigoada called the Life & Business Skills Program to address this age group and the problems associated with unemployment. It’s a community conversation in the first week around violence, personal health and wellbeing, and a basic business skills training in the second week. Though poorly educated, our people are very entrepreneurial. We’ve completed the program here in Port Moresby and we are fortunate to have a ‘Men of Honour’ finalist run the program in Lae.

What has been heart-warming for you at the foundation?

I think the calibre of stories that come through the ‘Men of Honour’ awards is pretty heart-warming. But what really pulls at my heartstrings is the smile on the face of our communities, and especially our little children, when we lay down education or health infrastructure. You see so much hope in their eyes and feel deep appreciation in their embrace.

Amanda H A Watson is a Lecturer with Australian National University, based in Port Moresby at UPNG under the UPNG-ANU partnership. Beatrice Mahuru is Chief Executive Officer of the Digicel Foundation. 

Amanda H A Watson

Amanda H A Watson is a researcher with the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. She taught at the University of Papua New Guinea’s School of Business and Public Policy under the ANU-UPNG Partnership. Dr Watson has also taught at Divine Word University, Macquarie University, Queensland University of Technology and TAFE NSW.

Beatrice Mahuru

Beatrice Mahuru has been Chief Executive Officer of the Digicel Foundation since December 2012. Before that, she was the Senior Program Manager. Prior to joining the foundation, Ms Mahuru had a regional communications role with ANZ. She has also worked for Kina Security, SP Brewery and Coca Cola.


  • While it is a n undeniable fact that Digicel is monopolizing the telecommunication section of PNG it is at the same time very disappointing to experience the expensive costs of its services. The foundation offers less than a percentage of the total revenue it racks in annually. I find the foundation somewhat as a advertising or more or less fabricated vehicle to drive a false campaign of its commitment to help in developing PNG. The community projects are blind projects that are carried out with the sole purpose of promoting a corporate giant. The projects are blind because they are proposed and implemented base on assumptions always. The project cannot be termed as impact as there currently is no statistics in PNG that will support any project. The Education department, National Department of Health and the National Statistics Office lack in sufficient updated information that will ensure that projects carried out are necessary and will address the improvement in each sector in the many problems faced in each sector. PNG is a complex country with multi-cultural societies and languages that result in various problems faced in each sector. Without proper statistics nationally I question how Digicel foundation claims to address the issue of development when there is no direction of where to start at the right place and time. To me all these projects lack current data to imply that there is need for such projects. There is no proper evaluation of the running and outcome of these projects. It only comes to question if private public partnership in PNG for development are real or just fabricated acts of assistance that cement companies large profit making agenda in our country.

    • Interesting view. I kind of agree that when talking about project impact, it’s better we give concrete evidence based data to support points of discussion. Manup Kulubob has a point while making reference to Digicel Foundation as the fabricated vehicle to drive a false campaign of its commitment to development in PNG. In the same token I’d like to know how much profit Digicel has so far made since its entry into PNG market versus the expenses incurred through its Foundation. I kind of agree when Mark Zukerberg, Facebook founder view on corporate social responsibility since he retains only 1% of the profit generated rather than listen to what Digicel try to tell me about #Corporate_Philanthropy

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