Regular price £9.28

Virgin Mountain - Papua New Guinea

Most of the coffee exported out of PNG is grown by smallholder producers in ‘coffee gardens’ of around 2 hectares planted with around 2,000 trees. These are often inter-planted with leguminous trees, such as Casuarina and Albizia, which provide shade cover for the coffee. There are also a number of conventional plantations, but these declined dramatically in number after PNG declared independence in 1975 and many of the large foreign land owners left the country. Most of these plantations have since been sub-divided and are now managed by ‘block holder’ tenant farmers with labour provided by the extended family. This ‘Virgin Mountain’ coffee has been produced by such small holder farmers.

From Kainantu, in Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands, a rough road passes through the Aiyura Valley and twists through the hills continuing up into the Nori Kori Valley. The coffee is called Virgin Mountain due to this unique and special location, where coffee trees line the hinterlands along the local customary boundaries separating the Kamano/Kafe people and the Gadzup communities. The coffee trees are nestled along primary forest fringes across fertile slopes.

Ben Akike, a young entrepreneur who is now working with local smallholders to improve quality in the Nori Kori, is the mobilising figure here. Ben is a cherry ‘collector’– a business man who goes from village to village and family to family buying coffee cherry or (as in this case) parchment coffee. Collectors such as Ben are not simply ‘middlemen’. Rather, they perform a vital role in transporting the coffee from the small producers to the dry mill and are also an important link in the quality control chain, as they will not pay good prices for poorly prepared parchment. 

Ben takes this one step further. He is building a new wet mill in the region that will receive daily deliveries of ripe, red cherry from smallholders in the surrounding area. Wet milling, fermentation, washing and drying will be managed on site. This will allow far greater control of quality than the more typical scenario, where smallholders pick, pulp, ferment, wash coffee on a daily basis on their own farms, which is then sun-dried on a tarpaulin (or ‘sail’) and then offered for sale at the roadside to ‘collectors’, such as Ben, who pay the price on the day.

Ben has long been laying the path for his new wet mill venture and provides advice and technical assistance to the farmers from whom he buys. He collects parchment coffee from around 500 producers from three separate communities, and as he travels through these hills, he always takes time to talk to as many people as he can. Community members gather round to listen and share their concerns with him. One of the farmers who works with Ben, named Paiks, is a great example of the everyday reality of smallholder production in the Nori Kori Valley. He is typical of the smallholder coffee farmers in the Nori Kori Valley and surrounding region (except perhaps for his headphones which he never takes off).

The village that Paiks calls home is simple, and its residents come from just two large extended families. He is a young man in his 30s but has 3 sons and is already passing on 3 of his 5 small ‘coffee gardens’ so they can take responsibility for their own production and become financially independent in future. Harvesting is typically carried out by him along with members of the extended family. There is no mechanisation and the ripe red cherries are handpicked daily throughout the peak season that runs from May through to August.

After being picked, the cherries are put through a hand-pulper that same evening. Some more modest farmers press the cherries under a large stone to separate the fruit from the seeds, but Ben has tried to discourage this practice. The de-pulped beans are then fermented for 2-3 days in poly bags or plastic containers. With no running water, the freshly fermented beans are washed in plastic buckets with perforated bottoms in local streams and rivers before being dried on ‘sails’. Most smallholder coffee is then offered for sale to local collectors, but Paiks and the other growers in the neighbourhood now sell to Ben, due to the additional advice and services he offers.

During the low season from September to April, Paiks tends his coffee garden, managing the shade cover, replanting, pruning and stumping the coffee plants.

When Ben establishes his mill in late 2016, he will be able to centralise the pulping process, bringing the benefits of mechanisation and capability for handing greater volumes and also ensuring more even and efficient fermentation and washing for the coffees produced in the surrounding coffee gardens. This, in turn, will drive up quality, values and livelihoods for these smallholder farmers and their families.

From here, the coffee will be sold on to exporters who carry out any final cleaning and sorting before the coffee is offered to buyers either in discreet traceable lots or more commonly bulked into full container load (FCL) volumes of regional coffee.

The long circular road through the mountains is composed of the heavy red clay soil that characterises the region. The first rains of the wet season begin to cut into the road and in many places make it almost impassable. The rains can make access in and out of the farming communities difficult even for 4x4 vehicles and many villages are cut off weeks at a time. In fact, in 2016, Mercanta’s PNG shipments were delayed for exactly this region.

Coffee is vital to the economy of PNG and provides employment and income for a large percentage of the population. Improving the quality and the value of country’s primary cash crop is vital if livelihoods are to improve. A first step in this process is the auditing of smallholder groups by certification bodies such as Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance and Utz. This provides a means of benchmarking quality and establishing best working practices. This, in turn, can elevate quality from commodity grade to speciality grade – which can be transformative. It’s also critical is establish the traceability that specialty buyers seek and that allows them to return in successive years for the same coffee from the same community.

Sustainable Management Services (SMS), which is affiliated with Mercanta’s exporting partner for this coffee, has taken up the challenge of providing extension services to coffee producers throughout PNGs major growing regions and does great work in supporting the efforts of forward thinking entrepreneurs such as Ben. These services are necessarily adapted to the realities of life in the country. For example, there’s no centralised farmer training centre (as SMS runs in some countries), as distances, lack of transportation, fines and the cost of accommodation once there make travel to such a location unworkable. Instead the extension workers spend days or weeks at a time in the coffee-producer communities and hold ‘coffee nights’ where growers gather to share experiences and learn best practices or SMS extension workers. This private sector initiative is steadily improving yields and driving up quality and value for thousands of small producers. It also means a cleaner and more consistent cup for the increasing number of commercial and specialty buyers who are now looking at this origin as a new store of value and with much untapped potential.