2018 Papua New Guinea Origin Trip Report — Part 1


This is an Origin Trip Report written by our Managing Director, Mike Murphy, and Head Roaster, Sam McTavish from their trip to Papua New Guinea — August 2018.

Introduction and Purpose
The purpose and direction for our latest origin trip to PNG was a little different this time, primarily because we were driving the agenda and the meetings and I was leading the organization of the trip. Traditionally we have joined the Fairtrade ANZ teams on our origin trips but both organisations agreed that Kōkako has now established sufficient knowledge and networks within PNG to lead these ourselves. We are grateful that the Fairtrade ANZ team provided some logistical and planning assistance prior to the trip alongside their on the ground liaison officer Gabriel Iso who is based in Lae, Morobe Province.

We work with two main certified Fairtrade Organic Coffee Cooperatives in Papua New Guinea – the first is HOAC (Highlands Organic Agriculture Cooperative), based in the Eastern Highlands with their processing and exporter (Coffee Connections) based in Goroka. This is the primary component of our Aotea blend.

The second and more recent cooperative we have started working with is the Unen Choit Coffee Cooperative Society (UC). UC have a city office in Lae, Morobe Province, but their coffee farms are located across geographically isolated terrain that can only be accessed by boat or plane – the districts include Kabwum, Tewai Siassi and Raicoast. Their export partner is Niuguini Coffee Tea & Spice Co Ltd based in Lae.

Unen Choit coffee is used in our recently released 70/30 Filter coffee blend – the blend is literally composed of 70% Unen Choit coffee and 30% from the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union (OCFCU) in Ethiopia. 

 

The Manager of Unen Choit, Molock Terry, and the Chairman, Daido Benia, were part of the 2017 Farmer Training programme we participated in with Fairtrade in May 2017. We had worked with them across a variety of programmes including best-practice plant husbandry, optimum cherry picking and processing alongside sample roasting and cupping protocols. The goal of the 2017 programme was to empower the cooperatives with knowledge to drive productivity and quality gains. This trip we wanted to follow up to see how Molock and Chairman Daido had put this into action and we also wanted to review the current on-farm processing techniques to ensure that they are up to date and meet the Fairtrade standards. That's Daido in the photo above, taken on the 2017 trip — you can read more about last year's journey here and here. 

We departed on Tuesday 7th August 2018 and I was joined on this trip by Sam McTavish, Kōkako Head Roaster, Josh Griggs, photographer, and Henrik Rylev representing NZ-based coffee importers John Burton Limited. We are well versed in the ‘amazing race’ style travel required to get to PNG now, rising at 2am, checking in at 4am and departing on one of three planes at 6.25am. We connected via Brisbane, then a second plane took us through to Port Moresby and then caught a third domestic flight to Nadzab Airport, around 35 minutes from the city of Lae. Our shuttle took us through to Lae at dusk giving us the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the run-down Highlands Highway. This section of road is well-used with public buses and heavy trucks, but the pot-holes and broken section of roading infrastructure really take their toll on vehicles and must create some significant productivity and efficiency issues for locals.

 

Meetings in Lae, Papua New Guinea

On day one in Lae we used our Hotel as the unofficial base for Kōkako Organic Coffee; hosting Gabriel Iso from Fairtrade for itinerary planning, Graydon Puinam – a cooperative leader in the process of becoming Fairtrade and Deborrah Yasu of the Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC). We had met Deborrah back in May 2017 when I presented the contingent of farmers with opportunities for harvesting, drying and using coffee cherry pulp as Cascara tea. The one person in the contingent who took great interest in this process was Deborrah, and I have kept in contact with her the last year encouraging her to develop markets for the cascara.

 

Deborrah has indeed made excellent progress, engaging some of the women farmers from the Neknasi Coffee Cooperative in Morobe Province to collect, sun-dry and bag the coffee pulp and then get this to Lae for retail sale. Deborrah has found a willing market in this added-value product (much of which is normally composted or wastes away as mulch) through ex-pats in Lae, local markets, and interest from the government run CIC. We tasted the latest cascara from Neknasi which had a 24.5% moisture content and had been dried for 3 to 4 days on raised drying beds in Sikilan Village, Neknasi Coffee Cooperative. We are now working with Deborrah to ascertain how she can commercialise the Cascara for wholesale and retail sale – this involves some assistance with packaging, labelling, certifications and exporting. The sample from Deborrah arrived in Auckland last week and we have been testing it in the office with our team – watch this space…

 

In the afternoon we headed to Exporter Niugini Tea Coffee and Spice Co (NGTCS) to catch up with General Manager Anton Goonetilleke. Their warehouse is located very close to the Lae port which makes shipping and logistics very efficient, and they have an excellent cupping room and sample roaster setup that Anton kindly provided for us to use. Anton filled us in on some of the efforts he and his team have gone to in order to make getting coffee out of Unen Choit easier – this has included providing cash float advancements to the cooperative to assist in cash-flow prior to all of the parchment being delivered to the exporter, and working collaboratively with Manager Molock Terry to ensure that parchment transport via barge from Wasu is as seamless as possible.

 

We asked Anton, who has worked in PNG for several decades, about the impact of climate change on coffee farmers in PNG. He noted that 30 years ago Climate Change was not an issue, but that now it’s biggest impact is uncertainty. He noted that the uncertainty around coffee plant flowering and the resultant crops was affecting forward planning and margins, and that the unregular harvests meant that in many instances farmers are not able to meet contract timelines agreed with the exporter, which also causes uncertainty for the importer and roasters who are planning ahead to receive the latest crop. He noted that the bare skeleton of the traditional flowering and harvesting schedule for each season was still there, but that climate change had impacted on this. Fortunately the June and July crop (just harvested) is traditionally strong and this is what we are expecting to arrive from Unen Choit in the coming weeks.

 

Anton also reinforced the issue of road degradation which we were about to see first-hand. We’ve written about the roads in PNG in most of our blog posts, and the Unen Choit region doesn’t have any respite from this. If anything they are further disadvantaged as their main road through heavy forest is mainly limestone. Farmers have to harvest and pulp the coffee, then dry the parchment and get this to storage sheds located in Wasu, Kabwum, Derim and several other clusters – all by foot. The parchment is then collected by Landcruiser & when it rains it creates a seriously unforgiving track (unlike dirt and mud) that creates sharp ruts in the road – one of the vehicles in our convoy a few days later was to succumb to this with a burst tyre. We discussed several other opportunities to make it easier for farmers to get their coffee out of their farms and down to Wasu – we know that ziplines in other producing nations have had some success and will see if this might be an option for Unen Choit.

 

Our first full day in Lae continued with a visit to the NGTCS mill at Five Mile (literally five miles out of Lae). This is owned by NGTCS parent company Agmark and Anton took us through the hulling of the Unen Choit parchment and drying prior to it being packed into 70kg jute sacks.

As the day ended we visited Molock Terry and some of the Executive members of the cooperative at their Lae office. Molock had gathered samples of coffee from different farmers and cluster groups across the cooperative but because they had not been properly hulled and milled at Five Mile they had too much silver skin and moisture to warrant sample roasting. Instead we focused on a roasting refresher course with Molock and his team, with Sam roasting several properly dried samples of UC coffee followed by Molock. We roasted five 125g batches which we packed with us to take on the flight to Wasu the next day.

 

The flight to Wasu & Reception on arrival

We were up super early again the following morning to get back out to Nadzab Airport for our flight to Wasu. Because we were flying on a small 12 seater plane we packed down all of our gear and left all non-essential items in Lae. Molock had arrived at the airport before anyone else to ensure that we were able to get on the plane – it is almost like a bus service and just because you have a ticket doesn’t guarantee you a seat. We all took turns standing on the scales and weighing our gear and were extremely fortunate to get on the first flight out at around 7.15am.

The flying conditions were perfect, and although our photographer Josh got the prime spot at the front next to the pilot he lamented the convex windows which played havoc with his camera lens. Wasu is a 35 minute flight from Nadzab airport across the Finisterre Range which encompasses Mount Sarawaget. From the air we could clearly see the road to Neknasi coffee cooperative that we visited in 2017 as well as the hidden villages all over the heavily forested mountain range. From the air that you can gain an even greater appreciation for the lengths these coffee farmers go to in order to get their product to the market.

 

Apart from myself, Josh, Sam and Henrik, we were also joined by Gabriel from Fairtrade, Molock from Unen Choit and a representative of the Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC) of PNG – his name was Daniel. For context we’ve provided some background information on Unen Choit that will help make this post more relevant: 

  • Unen Choit Coffee Cooperative Society was started in 2008, initially in the Wawet region, which is why its core membership is primarily made up of representatives from this geographic area.
  • The name Unen Choit means Wild (Choit) Fowl (Unen), with the Manager being Molock Terry (his late father had one of the original UC coffee plantations in Wawek), supported by Daido Benia as Chairman and Jim Aviang as Vice Chairman. Prior to becoming the Chairman of UC Daido was the local magistrate. There are seven elected representatives in the UC Management team and this includes Molocks older brother who is the UC Secretary.
  • The cooperative was certified organic in 2012 and was certified Fairtrade in 2016.
  • UC has 2360 farmers made up of 41 ‘cluster groups’ across 8 geographical zones. They have over 3 million coffee trees across the three main districts of Kabwum, Tewae Siassi and Raicoast.
  • For every 15 coffee farmers there is one representative that liaises directly on behalf of the cooperative
  • In 2017 Unen Choit produced 6 full containers of coffee (that’s 1,920 x 70kg sacks) and in the 2018 year they plan to produce 10 containers.
  • Unen Choit is unique among many PNG coffee cooperatives in that they have their own central processing units – these are comprised of coffee pulpers and drying sheds that are used collaboratively by the community. They also have their own wet mill – this was provided by Fairtrade ANZ and is intended to allow the farmers to pulp their coffee cherry in bulk.
  • 60-70% of the Fairtrade Premium money that is generated by coffee sales is reinvested in cooperative infrastructure. Led by advice from Fairtrade the coop is focused on setting up systems for best-practice infrastructure which will help them improve cashflow. This includes setting up the Lae office which provides a professional platform for connection with their exporter and roasters around the world who use UC coffee, including Kokako.
  • The one vehicle that the cooperative owns is currently out of commission and is being fixed in Lae. They have one loaned single-cab Toyota Landcruiser ute which is used to transport parchment down to Wasu. The vehicle has a dedicated driver who is also a builder and mechanic.
  • UC has a dedicated cherry picking team who assist local farmers during harvest periods.
  • Unen Choit manages an innovative banking system that ensures farmers are paid for their parchment on time; this is supported by a micro-finance initiative and credit which is extended by their exporter Anton of Niugini Coffee Tea and Spice Co Ltd. The credit provides cashflow upfront before the parchment is delivered and gives the coop the opportunity to pay farmers for their parchment as it is delivered to Wasu.

 

Upon landing on the grass airstrip in coastal Wasu we were warmly welcomed by a large contingent of locals. This included three amazingly comprehensive sing-sing groups interspersed from the airstrip through to the official welcome area adjacent to the Unen Choit parchment storage facility in Wasu. We were provided with an official programme for the day which included an emotionally charged service by Wasu Parish Pastor Rev. Mitiropa. Despite us not being fluent in Tok Pisin we were able to make out the majority of speeches, and were quite humbled that the pastor referred to our visit as a ‘letter from God’; we very much respected the power and conviction in the service and our warm welcome.

 

We all had an opportunity to address the assembled crowd, and I took this as a chance to present the Chairman & Manager of Unen Choit with a bespoke banner which we had prepared in New Zealand. It reads “Respektim ol pipol, kofi na giraon wantaim” (Respecting the people, the coffee and the land) and Stronpla wok bung wantaim na pasin poroman (A strong and collaborative relationship) and contains the logos of Kōkako Organic Coffee alongside Unen Choit. This was one of 10 banners that we handed out on this trip – I wanted to make sure that no matter how remote the farmers were that they had a chance to see the banner and appreciate our respect for them.

 

In the afternoon all of the cluster group farmers (many of which had travelled for a day to greet us) assembled under the carport adjacent to the small pole-house that was provided to us for the duration of our stay. We had a really good question and answer session that was moderated by Gabriel from Fairtrade, who is bi-lingual. The questions from the coffee farmer representatives were excellent, and spoke to their conviction and progressive desire to succeed. These included questions on coffee taste and flavour relative to altitude, a discussion on the length of time it takes many farmers to get their parchment out to the road or storage, to which we responded that we would make the roading and infrastructure issues heard in local media. There were also questions on why the cooperative could not go direct in selling their parchment direct to roasters – we explained the vital role that the exporter (in PNG) and the importer (in NZ) play in ensuring that the coffee is processed, graded and shipped to meet our quality standards.

I advised the farmer that although hulling and milling their own coffee is a good aspiration to have (HOAC in the Eastern Highlands does have their own dry mill – they still use an exporter to assist them though) it would be best for the cooperative if they focused initially on plant husbandry, quality, shade cover, soil quality, replacement of older coffee trees and a coffee plant nursery to drive quality and greater yields for the farmers.

 

Many of the coffee trees within the Unen Choit coffee cooperative were planted in the 1980’s and we identified a need for them to create a nursery for re-planting and some assistance from an agronomist to understand the optimum plant varietal that best suited the unique soil and climate of this region.

Towards the close of the first day in Wasu we visited the wharf where the barge takes dried parchment bags around the port of Lae for processing at the Five Mile Mill. We felt extremely privileged to be in such a beautiful coastal location – the sea was warm and unusually un-salty, and we used two local rivers to bathe – just like everyone else in the community.

 

Thank you for reading all the way to here, we hope you enjoyed this glimpse into where our beans journey from. This is the first in a series, our second blog post will follow shortly.