Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a relative newcomer to the specialty coffee scene. The remote locations of the nation’s smallholders—who produce 85% of total coffee in the country—combined with historically-poor infrastructure has made the transition to specialty difficult. Nonetheless, the country is working towards innovative solutions that will lead to better quality coffee and improved livelihoods for the nation’s smallholder coffee producers.
The “Queen of New Guinea”
Coffee’s introduction to PNG is directly related to the country’s colonial past. Emma Coe Forsayth was a businesswoman and plantation owner of American-Samoan descent who lived in the East New Britain Province in PNG. She was known to many of the German settlers in the area as “Queen Emma” or “Queen of New Guinea” for her extravagant parties, funded by her highly successful coconut and cacao plantations. She purchased and cultivated the land with the help of her brother-in-law, the German botanist Richard Parkinson. It is extremely likely that her extensive swathes of land around the province’s capital, Kokopo also contained coffee trees.
The first official record of coffee in the region can be found in an 1890 colonial government report, right in the midst of the height of Forsayth’s commercial power. The news of coffee’s profitability obviously spread quickly because by 1892, there were reports that coffee was also being grown in Rigo, a district nearly 800 kilometers, plus several bays, away.
Coffee Commerce Expands
It was from Rigo that coffee grew its hold in PNG. By 1897, Variarata, a plantation situated outside of Port Moresby and a little northwest of Rigo, had planted 20,000 Arabica trees. Four years later in 1901, soon after the trees began bearing cherry, the plantation began exporting to Australia, where the cherry fetched between 4 and 10 pence per pound (in today’s money, around AU$2.60 to AU$6.49 per pound).
While early plantations like Variarata did find some commercial success, most plantations were intended more as experiments than as true commercial enterprises. It was not until the late 1920s that businessowners made a concerted effort to increase production to commercial levels.
In 1928, the colonial government planted a plot of Arabica at a Department of Agriculture station at Wau in the Morobe district. In 1931, the plantation was sold to a German entrepreneur named Carl Leopold Bruno Wilde. Wilde renamed the plantation Blue Mountain Coffee. Later, he began producing roasted and ground coffee for both domestic and international consumption.
Most plants grown in the PNG Highlands today can be genetically linked to plants that grew on the Blue Mountain Coffee plantation in the 1930s. We can follow these genetic precursors to modern Highland plants as they traveled from Blue Mountain Coffee to another station a little more than 250 kilometers northwest in the Aiyua Valley in the Eastern Highlands. Then, they spread across the highlands over the course of many years as the station distributed seeds to smallholder farmers.
The journey coffee took from Queen Emma’s plantation near Kokopo, which was at least 450 kilometers from the nearest shore on the PNG mainland, to Rigo, Morobe and finally the Eastern Highlands spanned more than 1,300 kilometers and took nearly half a century. But this last stop in the Eastern Highlands offered the perfect climate and terrain for coffee’s development. Coffee growing in the Eastern Highlands benefits from a combination of superb climatic conditions, rich soils and the increasing attention and knowledge of smallholder farmers and has helped coffee from PNG make a globally-recognized name for itself.
New Issues in Coffee
Commercial coffee production took off in the post-war years. In just the 14 years between 1951 and 1965, the number of hectares planted with coffee trees grew by over 3,000%: from 147 to 4,800 hectares. Most of this growth was due to smallholder farmers in the highlands, many of whom were receiving seeds from the Aiyua Valley station. While earlier plantations were planted on flatter land, which often lies at lower altitudes, farmers in the highlands cultivate smaller plots and remain minimally mechanized to this day. Today, smallholders grow at least 85% of PNG’s annual production. Most of these smallholders grow Arabica at altitudes exceeding 1,500 meters above sea level.
While these smallholder plots offer many advantages, they also introduced one of PNG’s largest and most persistent problems. Having more small, remote growers puts higher demands on infrastructure like roads and bridges. These roads allow information and goods to flow in both directions: education, inputs and financing flow from urban areas to rural growers while information on harvest conditions and—vitally—physical cherry and parchment move from rural farms to urban commercial centers.
But these systems, tenuous to begin with, break down under poor planning or management. Locally, dirt roads are frequently made impassable by both annual and unpredicted rains. Roads can remain flooded for days or weeks at a time, preventing the movement of both inputs and harvests. High interest rates can drive cooperatives and individual farmers to ruin. And a lack of information about market changes can bankrupt farmers who lack the up-to-date knowledge that gives them bargaining power with those who buy their cherry or parchment.
Working Towards Solutions
PNG’s coffee board, The Coffee Industry Corporation Limited (CIC), works on regulations in the industry, facilitates efforts to improve sustainability and quality, conducts research on coffee plants and farming methods and offers agricultural extension services to coffee farming communities.
On the whole, CIC’s efforts have born [coffee] fruit. In recent years, PNG has seen an impressive increase in the overall quality of the coffees produced. CIC has also played a role in the country’s increasing participation in specialty coffee markets.
Coffee Production Today
Most farmers in PNG grow coffee on small plots of land intercropped with other cash and subsistence crops. Most land where coffee is grown can more aptly be described as “coffee gardens” than as farms or plantations.
Many smallholders in PNG process their cherry at home. Farmers pulp their cherry—usually with small drum pulpers or other hand-powered methods—and then ferment them for approximately 36 hours. After washing the parchment to remove any remaining mucilage, producers will dry parchment to 10.5% moisture content. The predominant drying methods are sun drying on raised beds or tarps or mechanical dryers, of which the Asaro dryer is most popular.
Drying typically occurs in two stages. First, skin drying reduces overall moisture content from approximately 55% to around 43%. The second stage, main drying, is comprised of several smaller changes that can be confirmed by farmers by conducting simple tests and by looking at the color of the inside of the bean.
Some farmers sell their coffee as cherry. While this often means that farmers receive less money at the time of sale, it can sometimes mean higher profits in the long run. Mills that receive cherry can retain more control over quality. In turn, higher quality coffee can sell for higher prices and enable mills to pay farmers more for high quality cherry.
In PNG, it’s been particularly difficult to organize farmers in collective or cooperatives. This is due in part to the incredible diversity of tribal groups and languages.
Sucafina in PNG
Sucafina PNG conducts quality control on all received parchment, coordinates logistics and offers certification and training programs to producer groups. We also work with several in-country exporters to efficiently ship coffee worldwide.
We are close partners with Colbran Coffeelands. Founded by Ben Colbran in 1962 and now managed by his son, Nichol, Colbran Coffeelands manage Baroida Estate and function as a wet mill and quality control hub for smallholder producers selling cherry or parchment. Ben was one of the first people to cultivate coffee in the Eastern Highland Valleys, and he also worked as a cherry and parchment collector for larger companies based in Goroka, the capital of the Eastern Highland Province.