The appeal of Papua New Guinea’s growing specialty coffee scene

Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea’s rich, fertile soil and highland altitudes make for textbook coffee growing conditions. BeanScene looks at why purchasing coffee from our island neighbour can also have a significant socio-economic impact.

In the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG), coffee is prolific. It is the backbone of the economy, where smallholder farmers grow mostly Bourbon and Typica beans. While a series of economic changes in the past two decades have drastically affected PNG’s overall coffee production, the volume of quality specialty coffee has improved. Papua New Guinean specialty coffee is now finding its way, in increasing volumes, to Australia, Europe and the US. This is why discerning coffee drinkers should be excited, says Jon Edwards, a Senior Coffee Consultant.

“I know I am biased, having worked in the PNG coffee industry for over 40 years, but I believe PNG coffees are among the best in the world,” says Jon. “Coffee is grown at altitude, and generally speaking, the higher the altitude, the more intrinsic the flavour, so here it is high in acidity, quite sweet, very aromatic and bright, and can often exhibit crisp, citrus or floral notes. Of course, the flavour profile will depend on where and how it is cultivated, but a good quality PNG coffee is a wonderful experience.”

An evolving industry

“Like many coffee-producing countries, PNG has its own set of challenges and there have been a series of events that have caused changes,” says Jon. “Having said that, sometimes we mix problems up with change. The biggest change I have seen in PNG is how coffee is sourced.”

To understand the change, it’s important to reflect on the country’s coffee history. Coffee was first planted by German colonists in the late 19th century. It is widely accepted, however, that commercial production commenced in the late 1920s with the establishment of a number of plantations. Following this, key infrastructure was built to support the functioning of the plantations, such as wet mills to process coffee and roads to transport the green beans.

A coffee farmer drying coffee beans on a raised drying bed in Kabiufa, Eastern Highlands Province. Photograph by Karen Javati, Market Development Facility.

“After independence, the plantations were handed back to landowners, due to several contributing factors, and over time many of these plantations that produced top quality coffees became defunct,” Jon explains. “Today, large wet mills strategically located in specific regions have replaced much of the plantation quality. As a result, smallholder cherry coffee delivered to these wet mills can produce quality coffee. Plantations and these central wet mill operations today account for approximately 25 per cent of PNG’s exports of premium grade and specialty coffees.”

PNG’s coffee industry continues to evolve. Today, it is estimated that at least 90 per cent of all coffee produced in PNG is grown by smallholder farmers, but the method in which this coffee is sourced has changed drastically over the past 40 years, with varying levels of benefit to the small farmers and diverse quality control challenges. In the 1970s and 1980s, coffee sourcing companies employed “coffee buyers”, who purchased cherry or parchment coffee from smallholders at a predetermined price; the companies would pay these buyers a commission based on the volume and quality of the coffee sourced. The companies would then process the coffee to green bean and sell it to exporters.

The market has since changed further, and today an independent network of buyers negotiate green bean contracts with exporters and source parchment and/or cherry coffee from smallholders to fulfill the contracts. In most cases the raw coffee is then processed at the exporters’ facilities at an agreed fee, with the exporter tasked with checking and maintaining the quality of the coffee. The most recent iteration of market demand is that roasters and consumers are now seeking “responsibly sourced” coffee. This requires a degree of traceability throughout the supply chain.

“The PNG coffee market is ready to take this on,” says Jon. “We have now seen the emergence of identifiable supply chains and coffee co-operatives that organise smallholder farmers and streamline supply. To maintain traceability and certification of specific supply chains, exporters have started dealing directly with suppliers – or the smallholder farmers.”

The question has been, how can PNG’s coffee grade be improved and marketed to the rest of the world to improve conditions for smallholder farmers? This is what organisations like Market Development Facility (MDF), for which Jon consults, have been focused on addressing. The Australian-funded program’s foundational work has been in supporting extension services in PNG since 2018. This has meant they have worked with exporters to build up their field extension teams, tasked with deploying training programs for smallholder farmers on cultivation and processing techniques, certification standards, and the requirements of premium markets like Australia. While PNG’s smallholders have a wealth of traditional know-how around growing coffee, this additional information has been pivotal to their making the gradual transition from commodity to specialty grade coffee. For exporters, the support has meant that quality consciousness is built into the supply chain, starting from the farmer, resulting in greater volumes of coffee that can be sold in premium markets for higher prices.

Certifying PNG’s smallholder farmers

As any veteran coffee drinker would know, coffee can be certified as many things – specialty, single-origin, sustainably sourced, high-grade. The common denominator is that certified coffee has a greater chance of appealing to the growing demographic of discerning coffee enthusiasts who are also very much conscious consumers. Coffee certification is a complicated process in itself and goes hand in hand with traceability, so working with key parts of the supply chain is essential. In PNG, this includes the smallholder farmers, the ‘aggregators’ that buy from them, and the exporters.

A coffee cherry farmer in Kabiufa, Eastern Highlands Province. Photograph by Karen Javati, Market Development Facility.

“The smallholder farmers themselves cannot afford certification, but a group of farmers in a particular supply chain that includes those aggregators and an exporter will be able to finance the certification,” says Jon. Supporting exporters to introduce certification to farmers is part of MDF’s work in PNG.

Information around climate change and sustainable farming practices are embedded into the certification programs. When farmers are trained to meet international certification standards, they’re also learning the reasons behind the changes to the environment that they’ve already observed and picking up on news ways of using soil and water sustainably. Because coffee is a common ground for most highlanders, with one in three people estimated to be directly involved in its cultivation and sale, it is also a platform through which many other social benefits can be introduced into communities – such as more positive economic outcomes for women who engage in growing and processing coffee. Certified farmers in PNG are guaranteed a premium for their coffee. Moreover, a competitive market with large coffee houses vying for quality smallholder coffee drives up prices for farmers. For global consumers, certification reflects the economic and social benefits that flow through to smallholder farming communities, as well as the protection afforded to the environment through sustainable farming practices.

Jon hopes readers will be inspired to sample and support PNG smallholder coffees.

“PNG are your neighbours and there are some exciting coffees coming out of managed supply chains and microlots. We encourage you to come visit the MDF stall at the Melbourne International Coffee Expo where we will have roasters and exporters. We’ll be providing on-site tastings and samples that visitors can take home to assess.”

Single-origin Papua New Guinean coffee from Banz Coffee, Nowek, Kosem, Kongo Coffee, Nebilyer Coffee, New Guinea Coffee Tea and Spice will be available at the Market Development Facility stall at MICE2022.

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