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Reviving the coffee industry in Papua New Guinea

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If you had an espresso coffee this morning, it’s likely that some of the beans in your brew came from Papua New Guinea (PNG). Australia is the third largest importer of PNG coffee after the US and Germany, purchasing 16 per cent of the island nation’s coffee every year.

Coffee production in PNG is dominated by village-based smallholder farmers, who grow coffee in gardens of up to two hectares. Smallholder farmers produce over 85 per cent of PNG’s annual coffee crops, making coffee a crucial source of income for more than 2.5 million Papua New Guineans. But despite its importance to rural livelihoods and the PNG economy, coffee production and quality has been in steady decline since the 1990s.

Dr Reuben Wanobo Sengere is a researcher in the School of Design and the Built Environment, and has been examining the rise and fall of PNG’s coffee industry. He is currently based in Aiyura, in the Eastern Highlands, where he is team leader for socio economic research with the Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC). In this role, Sengere and his team work to provide clear strategies on how to improve smallholder coffee productivity and quality.

His research recommends two key ways to kickstart the sector: strengthen collective action among farmers, and forge close partnerships between farmers and coffee ‘chain leaders’, such as processors, buyers and exporters.

Map of Papua New Guinea.
Much of PNG’s smallholder coffee is grown in the mountain Highlands region.

A brief history of the bean

“In Papua New Guinea, productive partnerships flourished during the early growth of the coffee industry from the 1950s to the 1970s,” says Sengere.

These partnerships were forged by European plantation owners, who assisted the colonial administration to promote coffee cultivation to the local people in the central PNG Highlands. The plantation owners educated local farmers about how to grow, maintain and harvest ripe cherries from their own Coffea plants, and established processing mills, quality checks, equipment and buyer networks for smallholders.

“After the demise of plantations and rural mills in the lead up to political independence [in 1975], the support services that plantation owners and their mills provided to smallholders ceased, as did price incentives for coffee quality,” he explains.

“Consequently, smallholders began to produce coffee of inconsistent quality and their productivity also declined.”

In the mid 1970s, Top Premium coffee grades A and AA dropped from 15 per cent of national production and now sit around 5 per cent. Premium coffee grades A and X made up 25 per cent of PNG’s coffee exports in the 1990s. By the mid 2000s, they fell to just over 12 per cent.

Farmers that grow together, prosper together

Today, smallholder farmers are dispersed and produce small amounts of low-grade coffee. This coffee is sold individually to buyers, reducing farmers’ bargaining power and creating further disincentive to produce good quality coffee.

But Sengere’s research shows that opportunities exist for smallholder farmers to collectively produce and market their coffee through grower cooperatives.

Dr Sengere (far left) holds a focus group discussion with the Korofeigu coffee grower cooperative.
Dr Sengere (far left) holds a focus group discussion with the Korofeigu coffee grower cooperative.

“In my research, smallholder farmers in coffee cooperatives attain 743 kg of green bean per hectare, whereas farmers who are not member of groups produced 384 kg per hectare.

“Through collective action, farmers can double productivity, bargain for better prices, overcome information deficiencies among their peers, minimise transaction costs, and become mediums for sourcing other services from chain leaders and development partners.”

Sengere says chain leaders play an important role in boosting smallholder coffee production. They provide coffee groups with access to services such as training in coffee husbandry, farm tools and cash advances, all of which enhance a cooperative’s capacity to produce better quality coffee.

“Moreover, smallholder cherry can be processed by chain leaders to the same standard as plantation coffee, and farmers can earn higher incomes as a consequence,” he says.

“Likewise, through these partnerships, chain leaders are guaranteed a consistent supply of quality coffee from smallholders.”

Parchment coffee drying in the sun.
Parchment coffee from the Neknasi grower cooperative dries in the sun.

Fair coffee for all

Grower cooperatives can leverage their collective power and chain leader partnerships to apply for Fair Trade certification, which is increasingly demanded by global coffee consumers. Certification greatly enhances the governance systems of grower groups, and helps them to not only produce coffee using sustainable farming practices, but ensures the social welfare of members.

In his case studies, Sengere found that Fair Trade certification positively affected leadership and delegation of group work in grower collectives. Group leaders also maintained good rapport with their farmer members, creating high social capital and cohesion within the group.

“Social cohesion and social capital are paramount in collective action as they facilitate networks, build trust among members and promote shared visions, values and norms that drive members to achieve common purposes.”

His research with the CIC is informing its strategic planning for PNG’s coffee industry for the next five years, and some farmers are already incorporating his recommendations into their coffee practice.

While many challenges still exist for smallholder farmers, Sengere says that by providing farmers with strategies that encourage collective action and strong productive partnerships, they are better able to produce coffee of the same quality that was produced during the industry’s peak period.

“I believe my research findings are providing a roadmap to resuscitate the PNG coffee industry so it can thrive once again.

“With the better income smallholder farmers receive from specialty or high value coffees, they can access health services, pay school fees for their children, have good diets and, as a result, improve their livelihoods.”

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