Market Reports

Papua New Guinea aims for growth

Words like fascinating and mysterious don’t even start to describe the incredible cultural diversity to be found in Papua New Guinea (PNG). And as those who love their coffee know well, when it comes to quality beans, this isolated Pacific nation has a stellar reputation. The good news for coffee lovers familiar with PNG’s coffee is that the harvest for the 2013-14 crop year is coming in well above the last crop, which was one of the lowest in history. “The new harvest should definitively get us back to production between 1 million to 1.1 million 60-kilogram bags,” says Navi Anis, Chief Executive Officer of the Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC) of PNG. While figures for total production in the past 2012-13 crop cycle are still being revised, the best-case scenario for that harvest has the final result at 850,000 bags. However many local coffee industry officials say the actual amount of coffee harvested and processed for shipment only reached 650,000 bags. This shortfall was caused by a mass labour shortage at the peak of the harvest as many workers picked up casual jobs in the 2012 general election campaign. The low output was unusual for PNG, which traditionally has remarkably stable outputs. One factor contributing to this stability is that the main harvest starts in May and June, but harvesting and picking continues year round, so output from an up-cycle will often help compensate for some of the lower production seen in the lower cycles. In 2011-12 the country turned out a record harvest of 1.4 million bags. Industry officials and exporters alike attribute this to an unusually early crop that allowed for most of the 2011 harvest to be incorporated in the crop cycle starting that year. This was further boosted by healthy carryover stocks from a late harvest in 2010. But, according to the CIC, these figures hide the fact that production in general has been below par. “For the past 15 years production here has stagnated at about 1.1 million bags,” says Anis. “We also have a lot less estate coffee available today and that has resulted in PNG also having less of the top quality coffee available as we used to have, so we are very concerned about how to correct this balance.” Driving through the provinces of Jiwaka, the Western Highlands and Simbu to Kainantu in the eastern-most part of the Eastern Highlands – four provinces that alone account for more than 90 per cent of Papua’s total annual production – one sees kilometre after kilometre of abandoned or semi-abandoned former private estates. Tribal and land disputes are blamed for most of the private estates being left by their original owners, but authorities are now trying to find adequate solutions to re-activate the land. The Colbran Estate is one of the few privately held farms still active in Kainantu, which used to be one of the prime areas for the Papuan coffee sector. “The farm here was started by my grandfather Ben Colbran who was one of the first to embark on plantation-grown coffee here in 1965,” says Nick Colbran. “There used to be more than 50 private estates in this region alone and now there is less than handful left.” While the volume of estate coffee has gone down in PNG, there is no disputing the quality of the coffee grown at estates such as the Colbran’s, which is also known as the Colbran Coffeelands or the Baroida Estate. Arriving late in the afternoon, hundreds of pickers are lining up at the wet mill to have their coffee weighed and processed. Few farms in the world would be able to compete with the flawless standards maintained here as one bag of perfectly picked ripe cherries after another is opened and loaded into the washing tank. From picking to washing, drying to processing, the beans are meticulously sorted every step of the way. “Most of our coffee is of the Arusha and Typica varieties, and most of the balance comes from Bourbon, Mundo Novo and Blue Mountain varieties,” Colbran says. “Last year was one of the worst crops ever but this year we should get back to normal production levels.” Colbran also buys several containers worth of green coffee from nearby smallholder producers at premiums well above the local market in order to motivate the growers to pick only ripe cherries. Anis says that while issues such as low yields and picking only ripe cherries continue to be a struggle, one of the many positive factors in the PNG coffee industry is that small-holder producers are increasingly moving toward seeing coffee as a business opportunity rather than a subsistence crop. Even though close to half of the country still depends on coffee as their main source of income, they do not rely on coffee for their basic daily survival as they have their food needs covered. “Most people have food gardens in addition to coffee to cover their daily needs,” Anis tells Global Coffee Review. “PNG has more than 400,000 families that are involved in coffee growing so this is very much a coffee country, but in the past few years we have seen the industry maturing in the sense that people are primarily seeing coffee as a business.” Coffee was first introduced to PNG in the late 1880s when German, British and Australian colonial powers took over administration in various parts of the country. It wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s, however, that coffee growing started in earnest when the crop was introduced to tribal communities in the key province of the Eastern Highlands.
In the Asaro community, home to the famous tribal hunters known as the Asaro Mud Men, coffee was first planted in in PNG in 1949. One of more than 800 individual tribes in PNG, the Asaro Mud Men still grow coffee and still practice the ritual of talking to the coffee trees throughout the harvest season to ask for good yields. In fact, talking to trees is a common practice across many of PNG’s coffee regions. “I speak to my coffee trees,” says local coffee producer Maggie Kanamon, who lives in the country’s second largest coffee producing province, the Western Highlands. “I say good morning to them and when they don’t produce well I scold them too, but right now almost all my coffee is in renovation.” Kanamon is one of the thousands of producers who are trying to revive years of low productivity and turn coffee into a more profitable business. “The farmers will have coffee trees but they don’t provide regular care and crop husbandry so the yields are quite low,” says Cathy Rumints, a local volunteer community worker in the Mount Hagen coffee area. “We are trying to work with them and make them realize that coffee is a good business and they can earn good extra money from spending more time on the coffee trees.” It’s little wonder that PNG calls itself “the land of mystery” in official tourism campaigns. With 841 different laguages spoken there, it is home to more individual tribes than any other country in the world. Of the country’s more than 800 known tribes, more than 75 per cent – or the equivalent of more than 600 tribes – are involved in coffee growing, according to government data. Travelling to tribal coffee communities anywhere in PNG is the ultimate coffee adventure. Most of the communities are so isolated that, due to a lack of roads and any other basic infrastructure, even basic coffee surveys have yet to be conducted. Visitors are far and few between. “There is a direct link between roads and coffee,” says Rumints while on a visit to the Ukuni One village, which can only be reached via four hours on roads that for the most part could barely be called dirt tracks. “When I first met with the women of the groups here they didn’t even know how many coffee trees they had.” In Ukuni One, women coffee growers from the Kope, Nokopa and Kaulga tribes are now in the process of taking surveys of their coffee farms, counting trees and learning about quality improvement. “We have very few visitors here and before we talked to Cathy [Rumints], we didn’t really see coffee as a potential and we had never had anyone visiting us about our coffee,” says Rachel Stephens, Leader of the Ukuni One coffee group of women. Growers in villages such as Ukuni One traditionally will bring a bag or two of cherries along to the weekly trip to the market and sell it along the road. “Now we realise that it can provide a good source of extra income, even if most of us only  have between 300 and 500 trees,” Stephens says. The CIC says that providing technical assistance and extension services to all the communities involved in growing coffee is an ongoing struggle with limited resources. But in recent years a number of projects have been started with support from the World Bank and other international funds that seek to help organise smallholders into cooperatives. It is hoped this will strengthen their market base and expand the reach of assistance to help improve basic crop husbandry and quality improvement. The key objective of this is also to recover production lost from the private estate sector. The CIC remains confident that the initial results of these efforts will start to show in coming years. “There is a lot to discover here in PNG for coffee buyers and roasters, we believe we still have a lot of potential we haven’t been able to explore and develop yet and which we need to do in order to remain competitive around the world,” says CIC’s Anis.

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