Doing it for Ukuni

By John Russell Storey

On the wall of the Apo Angra Kange Co-operative (AAK) offices in Goroka, Papua New Guinea, is an article about how a family has finally been able to send their young son to school. In the article, a photo shows a young boy, Ukuni, smiling shyly. It’s a picture that Brian Kuglame, Project Co-Ordinator at AAK Co-op, refers to frequently when he’s talking about the co-op and what its aims are.

“Everything we do is for him, his brothers and sisters. It’s their future. Everything we do is so they can go to school, to hospital when they need to, and have a safe home,” he says.

When Brian talks, there’s no missing the emotion. There’s a sense that he’s not wasting time pushing ahead with the co-op’s objectives. It’s a front-line passion and commitment that’s humbling.

We’re on the third day of a visit to the PNG Highlands under the incredibly knowledgeable guidance of Jon Edwards, General Manager of PNG Coffee Exports. Jon grew up in Goroka, and his background as a teacher is evident by the way he explains the coffee complexities and challenges he’s dealt with over the years. It’s a small group: Kirk Stuart from Green Bean Coffee Roasters, George Sabados from Mongrel Joe’s, and Melissa Clement and Lewis Wand from Seven Miles Coffee. By this stage, all of us are in awe of how many people Jon knows. His diplomatic manner and friendliness eases us through a number of roadblocks. The country is still in the throes of a national election. Somehow, he coaxes smiles out of exhausted and grumpy policemen, an admirable art. As he drives, Jon explains the story behind AAK. The relationship with the co-op is something of a personal mission for Jon, and it’s clear he and Brian have achieved some astounding milestones in the seven years they’ve worked together.

Our first meeting with Brian is on the wide veranda of a hotel restaurant in Banz. We’re joined by Paul Pora, Manager of the Kiam Wet Mill in the Jiwaka Province. Brian and Paul are old friends. They worked together at the World Bank and PNG’s Coffee Industry Corporation. Both are very modest about their experience and credentials – I’m talking double masters degrees and one a qualified geneticist. The coffee industry is lucky to have this level of expertise being utilised in the field where it really counts.

The AAK Co-op Society started in the 60s with the vision to give people a better life and build a future for their children. Today, the co-op has roughly 1800 coffee growers, each with an average of 30 to 60 coffee trees. Respect and trust between the growers and co-op is earned, not taken for granted.

When we asked how someone can become a member, Brian smiled and asked to look our hands. One test when prospective members apply to join is very simple: hard or soft hands. Calluses are a badge of entry, proof of long hours and hard work. None of us would qualify – soft hands.

As the co-op has grown, community spirit and solidarity amongst the members has been the foundation of AAK’s longevity. In fact, the names that make up AAK all mean “brotherhood”.

The co-op network operates through 65 cluster groups. Each cluster group has a maximum of 35 growers. Members have their own record book kept by the co-op showing the number of trees that are cultivated, quantities of coffee brought in for processing, its grade, and how much was paid. In the future, these books will be kept at each cluster group warehouse and finally with the farmers themselves.

Record keeping is essential for certification of the 4C project (Common Code for the Coffee Community). In a nutshell, 4C is a code of conduct based on principles of sustainability, the environment, social benefits, and the exclusion of unacceptable practices such as child labour. More than 600 of AKK Co-operative’s farmers are 4C certified.

Vision isn’t just talked about in the co-op, it’s put into practice. Among the many successes, some certainly deserve highlighting. First, an evolving credit scheme has made coffee pulpers and agricultural implements easily available to growers. To date, more than 120 pulpers are on farms thanks to the scheme. Corrugated iron for roofing is also accessible through credit. Part of the vision for every farmer is to have an iron roof. Plans are under way for kit houses to become obtainable through a deposit and loan, which is backed by a major bank. To keep costs down, the co-op has its own sawmill to produce the housing timber, providing employment and training.

A field training network is another tangible benefit to co-op members. We were fortunate to sit in on a training session. It was an amazing insight into the work and effort put in by the members. Everyone being trained as trainers are farmers themselves who have experienced firsthand the benefits of pruning, land management, and cherry quality. Everything being taught is based on experience and results.

Through the co-op, beehives are being made available for farmers. This wonderfully innovative scheme will not only assist with pollination, but the honey can be consumed and sold. The work that’s gone into the project has been meticulous, from the hive design to the species of bee.

Last but not least is the success of an education program the co-op has been running. It’s a real investment in the next generation. In 2016, more than 360 students received free schooling through the co-op. In turn, high performing students can be offered funding for agriculture or accounting degrees. AAK has sponsored six students through university and currently has two students on degree courses. Each student has their fees paid and receives a subsistence allowance for food and accommodation. On graduating, the students are expected to work for the co-op for two years. A win for both.

We were lucky to meet two graduates on our final afternoon at Gimiyufa Village in the Asaro District. Jon and Brian had arranged the visit to the village, which began with a greeting from two men covered in white with clay masks, the famed Mud Men of Goroka. Their silent performance was mesmerising. Describing it simply doesn’t do it justice.

While a small feast was being prepared, there was a chance to look at the village’s extensive vegetable gardens. Kirk, Brian, Jon, and George were talking to a lovely lady who must have been in her 70s, working flatout hoeing weeds between lines of kaukau (sweet potato). To one side, Melissa and Lewis were exchanging Facebook details with the two graduates, all on their iPhones. The contrast of old and modern spoke volumes.

Visiting the AAK Co-op was an education and insight, but that’s putting it mildly. As always, the future is hard to predict. What’s ahead for the co-op is best summed up by Brian. To him, it’s a process of overcoming growers’ scepticism by showing people what success is, be it a new house, a corrugated iron roof, better prices, or putting children through school.

If the members see and experience successes like this, they will have the confidence to move forward and provide a secure future for children like Ukuni. For Brian and the co-op, nothing is more important than that.

This article features in the August 2017 edition of BeanScene Magazine. Subscribe here today:

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