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Origin Trip - Papua New Guinea

Origin Trip - Papua New Guinea
Dan Leahy, brother Mick and Jim Taylor first saw the Waghi Valley from their plane in 1933 while surveying the highlands for gold. Contrary to popular belief at the time that the vast interior of Papua New Guinea (PNG) was uninhabited, Dan, Mick and Jim discovered a huge and heavily populated territory. Over a million inhabitants by some accounts. Tribes that had changed little since the Stone Age and had never before seen a white person.

Eighty-six years later and we are headed for the Western Highlands of PNG to visit our producers. Landing at Mt Hagen airport, we are met by Bryan Leahy, one of Dan’s children. Bryan produces most of the coffee we source from PNG, with cherries bought from small holder farmers. Straight off the plane we head to his wet mill in Kagamuga, a short drive from the airport.

We arrive to witness a steady stream of farmers lining up to deliver their coffee at the weighing station. Visually, we can see an amount of green cherries intermixed with the red. Theft, and a mistaken belief that they will make more money leads farmers to pick unripe, green cherries with red. Most of this is sorted at the wet mill as green cherries, generally lighter than ripe, red cherries, float on water and are easily separated. The rest of it can be sorted out at the dry mill using the gravity table. The farmers seem in good spirits, despite having to deal with a number of pressing issues.

Low coffee prices have driven a number of farmers to abandon coffee and move on to more profitable crops. As coffee is not a traditional crop in PNG, and the locals do not have a strong coffee drinking culture, it is not difficult for farmers to pull out their trees and replace them with vegetables like cabbage which allow them to earn a higher return per hectare. Additionally, an outbreak of coffee borer beetle, notoriously difficult to eradicate, has made it even more difficult to earn a living from coffee. Coffee borer beetle, or broca is it is also known in other parts of the world, is a pest that burrows into the coffee cherries to lay its eggs. Broca can be controlled with alcohol traps and farmers have adopted this technique which involves luring the broca inside a plastic bottle laced with a mixture of ethanol and methanol. The broca is attracted to the trap by the sweet and they end up drowning in the alcohol mixture. The broca is attracted to the trap by the aroma of coffee and they end up drowning in the alcohol. The traps have proven effective in other producing countries, so the farmers here are hopeful. By reducing yield and quality, broca can severely reduce a farmer’s income. An outbreak of broca alone can cost a farmer his entire seasons profit. Globally, broca has been widely reported to cost the coffee industry over US$500 million per annum.

Much of the coffee in the Western Highlands is sun-dried on tarps or raised beds, making them most vulnerable to weather. This harvest, rain has been frequent and plentiful, making it difficult to dry the coffee down to acceptable moisture levels within an acceptable time. This situation worsens when harvest season peaks as the inflow of cherries gathers pace and space on the patio runs short. Thankfully, Bryan is building a new dry mill, including new mechanical dryers and conditioning bins, allowing him to achieve consistent drying rime and improve both quality and consistency in the coffee.

We head out the next day to Bryan’s plantation Korgua, originally built by his father Dan in 1953. Located in the Nebilyer Valley, Korgua lies under the shadow of Kuta Ridge where Dan’s gold mine was located. To this day Dan’s original plantings of Bourbon and Typica are still healthy and producing cherry. There is a wet mill on site, drawing water from the nearby river. These days natural and honey processed coffees are produced, dried on patios covered with retractable roofs, in addition to the more traditional washed coffees.

Situated on the border of two warring tribes, the Ulga and Kolga, Korgua served as homestead, coffee plantation as well as a buffer zone for tribal conflict. To help bring peace between the tribes, Bryan’s father Dan was invited by the Ulgas and Kolgas to occupy their shared territory and create a buffer between them. Much of the PNG highlands is still very tribal, and disagreements can escalate into large scale conflict involving weapons like machetes which many seem to carry. Conflicts like this often result in fatalities, with most deaths occurring several days after the event as injuries become infected and turn gangrenous.

We leave Mt Hagen for the Eastern Highlands capital of Goroka and head east along the Highlands Highway, traditionally a two-lane single carriageway resembling a gallery of potholes and land slips. Reaching the town of Kudjip, we take a side road just past the tea plantations and make a quick visit to two of the few remaining coffee estates in PNG, WR Carpenter Estates’ Sigri and Bunum-Wo plantations, and Kimel Estate. Much of the coffee grown in PNG these days come from small-holder producers, accounting for 85% of annual crop production according to PNG’s Coffee Industry Corporation. Intermediate sized holdings, of between 10 and 20 hectares, account for 11% of annual crop and plantations with over 20 hectares account for 4%.

Arriving in Goroka, we visit the team at PNG Coffee Exports for a cupping session and updates on the current harvest. We are joined by Brian Kuglame of AAK Co-operative who will be taking us to meet some of the member farmers of AAK.

I first met Brian Kuglame in 2014 on a previous trip to PNG. He founded AAK in 2000 to encourage self-reliance within highland communities through coffee. Nineteen years later and his organisation is still going strong. AAK is organised with cluster groups as the base unit. Each cluster is effectively one extended family. On last count, AAK had 64 cluster groups spanning three provinces in the highlands. We visit one of the cluster groups near Gimiyufa Village in the Asaro area and discuss some of the issues they currently face. Happily, one of the coffees we selected while cupping the following day turned out to be one of AAK’s lots.
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