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AAK COOPERATIVE
PRE-HARVEST
UPDATE

AAK COOPERATIVE UPDATE

Because of its remote nature and the difficulty associated with traveling to the various cluster groups organized under the banner of AAK, we have relied heavily on our export partners in PNG since the death of AAK’s leader, Brian Kuglame. Regina and her team have stepped up to the challenge, delivering us timely and relevant information in support of Crop to Cup’s goals for the 2024 harvest.

We will be visiting AAK in June; if you’re interested in exploring coffee from PNG, particularly as a replacement for high-volumes of clean blender coffees or for microlots, now is the best time to contact your trader to register your interest.

In 2023, we offered premiums and a revolving air freight fund as a way to encourage quality practices for AAK clusters; a small number of clusters engaged in drying experiments as an effort to improve the value of their coffee and the prices they received. We are expanding the purchasing of those coffees for 2024 as well as coffees processed through centralized wet mills built using support from Crop to Cup and roaster partners of AAK.

Below is an update from Regina and Samuel from their March 2024 visits to our focus cluster groups for this year’s harvest.


Keiya cluster group in APO erected a new storage shed using materials obtained through support from Crop to Cup. This semi-permanent storage shed is a result of combined labor efforts by all community members. Logs for the shed are chopped on the opposite side of the river, then transported on tire tubes downstream then walked 30 minutes to base camp for use in construction.

In this photo from March 21, the storage shed is nearing completion: bamboo will be weaved to form the front wall, making it complete by mid-April and functional for the storage of coffee this season:

AAK-UPDATES-AND-DEVELOPMENTS-Mar2024-6

The wet mill infrastructure is also nearing completion. The fermentation tank, made of brick, was built, with final touches required of smoothing the concrete floor. They are welding a pulper and motor stand to enable the use of a motorized pulper this harvest.

AAK-UPDATES-AND-DEVELOPMENTS-Mar2024-7-2

The current raised bed is 1x5m in dimension; the cluster group is replacing the old beds which did not allow sufficient airflow with another two larger beds with cloth in preparation for the 2024 harvest:

AAK-UPDATES-AND-DEVELOPMENTS-Mar2024-8-2
AAK-UPDATES-AND-DEVELOPMENTS-Mar2024-9

The Keiya cluster group projects that all of the cherry from this group will come to this new centralized wet mill; this year they expect their volumes will increase if the rain stops. Non-members will also be invited to deliver cherry here rather than processing at home. Because Keiya lacks sufficient access to clean water, they will be processing their coffees as honeys this year.


The Waingar cluster group of ANGRA-Simbu also used support from Crop to Cup to build a new, centralized wet mill, improve their drying beds and construct a new storage shed of permanent materials for the 2024 harvest.

The raised beds are complete and in use:

AAK-UPDATES-AND-DEVELOPMENTS-Mar2024-13-2

At the wet mill, the fermentation tanks and shade cover are complete in this photo from March, while the piping system is expected to have been completed mid-April:

AAK-UPDATES-AND-DEVELOPMENTS-Mar2024-14

The Waingar cluster group and leaders spoke with confidence that their cherry volume will increase for 2024 versus 2023. With the support provided by Crop to Cup, in addition to the improved materials for storage, the wet mill and drying materials, the cluster group also received a Draminski moisture meter and Infrared thermometer to further improve drying practices. Commitments to deliver cherry to the wet mill have already begun. Like Keiya, Waingar does not have a good water source nearby and will also be using their wet mill to produce honey processed coffees.


We were unable to visit the Koglai cluster group or Kesavaka cluster groups due to heavy rainfalls in the months of January, February and March which led to landslides, blocked roads, and bridges washing away. Communications with the group leaders continues via mobile devices. For Kesevaka, due to the geographical locations of farmers coffee plots and houses, it’s not possible for centralized wet mill processing; however, farmers will gather their parchments at the storage house and bring for processing.


Last December, 15 other clusters received pulpers:

AAK-UPDATES-AND-DEVELOPMENTS-Mar2024-15

We will visit Papua New Guinea and the AAK Cooperative in June. For more information, or to contract coffees forward on a SAS-PSS basis, contact your trader at Crop to Cup.

 

PNG Producing Partners

PNG Forward Offers

Selling Strategy Overhaul Benefits Producers

Drying bed full of naturals

AAK Cooperative producers sell their milled coffee to the Exporter’s warehouse directly. This radically new strategy has resulted in increased volumes (with higher quality) and producers get paid quicker.

HARVEST OUTLOOK

Overview

Late summer always brings the lab incredibly unique cups from our partners in Papua New Guinea. More importantly, this is a season of increased communications and ever-deepening relationships with producer groups like AAK, a cooperative with operations across Western, Central and Eastern Highlands, as well as Roteps Washing Station, a wet mill near Hagen in the Western Highlands. This year brings us exciting improvements of a new farmer-empowered selling system and many more beautiful lots to choose from on the cupping table.

A System Overhaul Pays Off

The overall coffee-growing industry in PNG has once again struggled with increasing volume similar to the last few years. During these years of low production, the AAK Cooperative has struggled to convince its members to deliver their coffee to the coop instead of selling to local traders who offer a quicker transaction, but for less cash.

But this year AAK adopted a radical selling strategy that proved to be effective in collecting volume. Here’s how it works: Cluster groups deliver their coffee to a local dry mill where it is milled down into green bean form. The clusters then sell the green beans directly to our exporter’s final mill where we cup and clean/sort the coffees for export. With this change, producers are able to get paid much quicker, addressing the primary complaint of the members. Additionally, this change reduces their need to sell cherry or parchment to cash-ready middlemen that previously impacted AAK’s collection volume.

You’ve likely heard us mention AAK leaders Brian Kuglame and Regina Lusaro in the past. Their expertise and charismatic leadership will always play a role in driving the success of this wide-reaching farmer group, but the change in their selling structure is the main factor leading to increased qualities and volumes this year.

Quality Corner

If you’re wondering how this earlier milling down to green bean form may affect long-term quality, we’ve been testing these lots next to others that have sat longer in parchment. We cup, measure moisture content and water activity and have found no reduction or movement outside of our strict quality specs.

In a normal year, AAK might have one or two lots (20-80 bags each) reaching into the 86-87 point range with the majority of lots falling between 83-84 points. This year, our cupping table has exploded with dozens of PNG options in the 85-87 range. Lots are in the milling/bagging stage right now. We expect these coffees to arrive just before the end of the year.

Timing

Peak Harvest Lot Selection On the Water Arrival
June-July

Aug-Sept

Oct-Nov

Dec-Jan

PNG FORWARD OFFERS

PRODUCER HIGHLIGHTS

AAK Cooperative

In a country that is highly decentralized and culturally separated from valley to valley with different languages, networks and customs, the new selling approach is genius. There are several hundred small cluster groups within the AAK Coop. For each cluster, the new strategy fosters greater ownership over the supply chain and selling decisions. This, in theory, leads to a greater pride in the product and the improved quality that comes with it. AAK is now growing its member base (after a few years of declines). It and is a resource to advise member clusters in subjects like transportation and pricing guidance. Having the clusters in the driver’s seat has already proven to be a success. Crop to Cup is proud to be AAK’s principal buyer since 2014.

AAK Cooperative | 84.5 – 86.5 Cherry, pomegranate, lemon, cocoa, cola, cilantro, apricot, squash

Training with an AAK cluster group.

Hand sorting at a dry mill.

One of the 64 cluster groups that comprises AAK gathered at a collection point.

Roteps Washing Station

Another favorite supplier of ours is back—Roteps Washing Station! Last year, super low volumes meant we couldn’t get our hands on lots from this washing station. Volumes are up and the coffees we are tasting have shown up with head-turning quality. We are excited to be bringing in several lots including a PB lot from Roteps, not only to broaden our offers from this washing station but also to pick back up on last year’s super tasty PNG peaberry. Last year’s PB success was from a larger regional blend, so it’s nice to see the improvement over the year prior as we drill down to more traceable peaberries. Paul, pictured below, owns the washing station which is located in Kuli, not far from Hagen in the Western Highlands.

Paul, owner of Roteps, with producers weighing cherry

Roteps WS 2021 | 85.5 Green apple, tarragon, caramel, lemon, milk chocolate, green pepper

Roteps Peaberry 2021 | 87 Chocolate ganache, malt cocoa break, pomegranate lemon nougat, juicy finish

How to Book:

It’s been an exciting sourcing season, and we’re thrilled to share this year’s spot offers with you. We’ve also been busy booking custom lots for roasters that won’t be hitting our spot list. For these, we’ve been looking to AAK’s commercial-quality volumes, lesser-known coffee provinces like Morobe, and some nice organic-certified lots.

Now is the time to book SAS NANS contracts and request PSS of lots from AAK & Roteps. Coffees will be arriving around the New Year—perfect timing to bring in something fresh.

– The Crop to Cup Sourcing Team

PNG FORWARD OFFERS

 

A SING-SING IN WAINGER, THE HIVES OF JUCURU, BILUM BAGS AND A PRIZE PIG

Ben Heins in PNG, August 2018

It was this cowboy’s first rodeo in PNG, but Crop to Cup’s fourth year with the AAAK Cooperative. So, I had an idea of what was going on. Trip prep included conversations with the charismatic cooperative head, Brian, as we all worked to encourage the first ever cupping competition between the farmer “clusters.” For review, AAAK comprises Apo, Angra, Angana and Kange Cooperatives (with the addition of Angana, the name recently changed from AAK). These coops span the three coffee producing provinces in Papua New Guinea; Eastern Highlands, Western Highlands and Chimbu/Simbu. Different places, different languages, different cultures with one thing in common. Coffee.

Due to a history of differences, the cooperative’s message has all along been one of unity. Brotherhood in coffee. Which is what makes the idea of a cupping competition so different.

But elders in the coop have reason to try something new. Kids are running off to the cities (Goroka, Port Moresby, Lae, Hagen) in hopes of cosmopolitan careers. Not many find it, and the farms are drained of talented young minds that could have otherwise focused on the business of agriculture. That’s what prompted Brian Kuglame, a farmer from Simbu province himself, to form AAK in 2000, to encourage self-reliance in his and surrounding communities.  Eighteen years later, I’m here to survey the results.

I can pay Brian an awkward compliment (my specialty). At the outset he was so energetic, wide-eyed, insistent and passionate that it came off as slightly saccharine. He talks like his mouth just can’t keep up with the enthusiasm of his mind. And all that he had to say was just too hard to believe.

AAAK is now 62 active clusters. Many clusters require flying into a remote air-strips, which is perhaps a godsend if the road from Goroka to Kundiawa is any good representation of the general state of infrastructure (and I think it is). To be sure, he leans on the AAAK management (Apo – Warren, Angra – Jerry, Angana – Kombuk, Kange – Stanley) to help motivate his clusters and organize action and activity. That said, Brian still plays Atlas. He travels 5 days a week, flying many of those days. His moves are graceful, forceful and calculated. To give you an idea of his foresight – I have to talk about Brian’s bag – called a bilum.

Bilum Bag

A bilum bag. In PNG they sell them in stores and you’ll see them on the roadside as well. A cultural institution to be sure. But Brian, he has his own bilum. This thing is the Amazing Dream colored coat of bilums. White with multicolored tassels, emblazoned with the AAK logo and prominently displaying the name of each constituent coop in its respective color. After a welcome with sing sing outfits and dancing, there was a cascade of greetings from top management all the way down to Taylor, our roaster guests and myself. Then Brian. When his turn comes Brian steps on stage, pulls out the bilum and begins speaking to the audience in the local pidgin. Not understanding a word, I did follow the tone as it started out enthusiasticly, then built into a crescendo of pride approaching reproach, sounding like anger. He holds the bilum up to the crowd, unzips it, and pulls out….

A bilum tied inside the original bilum. Without context, I have to say, this is all very comical. I mean – this bilum is so ornate it was like the Ark of the Covenant…and then, after all the build-up, when what came out was another bilum – I almost spit out my water. But Brian, ever the savvy leader and cunning educator, was using the bilum to make a point.

The inner bilum said, ANGANA. There were 3 more bilums – APO, ANGRA and KANGE. These are the names of the 4 sub-cooperatives, each meaning ‘brother’ in the local language. The outer bilum represents AAAK cooperative, but it was also the mother, showing how all of the sub-cooperatives are actual brothers. The cluster groups, Brian explained, are the children – and the children are what everyone is working for.

The structure is important because Brian is pushing this year to overhaul the pricing transparency system. He calls it a new docketing system. It means farmers are registered and payments to AAAK will be reported out and transparent. (not that there isn’t honest accounting happening, but it’s an old paper receipt system and hard to unravel the dollars in a way that is easy to comprehend).

This merit-based payment, on top of the cupping competition, could be a cause for strain as well as an opportunity for engagement. And so we saw Brian pull out his bilum of many colors at every gathering – reinforcing their connection to AAAK, the strength in solidarity and folly in falling out. Not a rookie move for a man that’s battling poaching from other exporters and apathetic farmers within his group. When you look into the audience while he talks, you see head nods, grunting in approval, smiles – all a part of his gentle massage of compliments, reassurances, appeals for patience and diligence, and at last his challenge. Do this for your kids. We’re all doing this for the next generation.

This is the challenge of smallholder coffee. And this is execution at its best.

Of our visits, our very first was to Kesevaka Base Camp. And it is one worth first mention.

I laugh just thinking about it, because it started with a few uneasy white guys standing on a dirt road. Brian has a loudspeaker on the AAK Landrover – and to let Kesevaka know of our arrival he hits an overhead button in rapid succession. Goose honks blurt out of the truck as we side-eye each other. Seemingly nothing happens next. We get out of the car and see a welcome banner across trees in the distance. We can hear a crowd. Far off. Not talking. With a low hum – like a hive – that is then suddenly punctuated by screams.  Shrieks of terror, male and female.

Thigh Slapper

Okay, Kesevaka – you have my attention. Just then, a somebody slaps the inside of my knee and quickly rides a hand up my inner thigh. It was a combustion of emotions; scared, mildly violated and maddeningly confused.  I turned around and saw a betel-nut stained grin on a dancing old woman, who, was clearly over the damn moon that the car delivered us to her driveway.  (We later learn that the leg shake is like a handshake for special greetings in this region.)

But before Kesevaka, we were taken to the Jucuru Training Center.

The training center broke ground in the last 18 months and is on track to be completed in a few more. Youth engagement is the goal. I touched on the problem earlier. This is the AAAK response. Upon arrival you’ll see hundreds of bee hives (arranged in a hive structure that is designed to look like the tree-shape of the AAAK logo – photo above). You’ll see a fish pond to teach fish farming, a piggery and livestock training area. You’ll see fruit trees and gardens, a demo coffee plot, a newly built tool shed, and a model home.  Space has been staked out for the 3,000 sq ft training center building, and a large campsite to host up to a hundred youth at a time.

Brian pointing at bee hives

If you go you’ll see a banner where Brian has put four steps to follow….or rules to live by …. or goals to aim for, depending on how you look at it.

  1. Monday work parade
  2. 2. 2000 coffee trees = 15 kn /day (5USD)
  3. 3. Eat only what you grow (save your money and build wealth)
  4. 4. Buy a proper 3 bedroom home

Once complete the Jucuru training center will bus in youth who will camp on the premises. Kids will learn all the skills necessary to have a diversified agricultural business on the home front. Grow your own food, plant 2000 coffee trees for income.  AAAK will provide a set of hives and queen bees for any farmer with 2000 trees so that they have additional revenue through honey. Now breeding pairs of pigs and chickens are on the center. As they reproduce livestock will also be given to farmers, so they can start to build wealth through animal husbandry. Maybe I’m just looking through at twenty years of dedication with fresh eyes – but it was overwhelming. A clear vision, a tactical path, a charismatic leader. All the ingredients. And us. I have to tip my hat to my man Jake – Brian credited him with the idea of focusing on youth. Jake – you lit some sort of fire under that man – because he’s on it.

The week proceeds with multiple base camp visits. But the many beautiful welcomes and grandstanding couldn’t overshadow other good news on the coffee front. Quality is up.

The AAAK staff are well trained from CIC (PNG Governmental coffee support org – where Brian in fact worked), and with better prices and consistent purchases from Crop to Cup, have invested in the next steps toward quality, mainly centralized wet mills and drying. Both Kesevaka and Kogai have wet mills in various stages of completion. Brian thinks that taking in more cherry will help the consistency of coffees. I tend to agree – and when I asked Simon of Apo Coop about some construction details, he was on top of it.

Ben: With this new mill you’re going to need a lot more drying capacity

Simon: Yes. We have already begun working on the raised mats for drying

Ben: What are you going to use for the new drying area? Perhaps you look for the shadiest side of the hill.

Simon: Of course. We selected this site for just that reason.

These conversations were par for the course on most processing investigation. Same went for other ag practices. They have AAK nurseries, and are mainly replanting Blue Mountain (Typica) and some Bourbon . No complaints here.

Rust and old trees are bugaboos – but Brian suggests that these are just symptoms of farmer apathy. Easily resolved with a re-invigorated community. Again – I don’t disagree. I also should say – I don’t think I’ve been anywhere else where our presence has meant so much. The pride that the farmers have in hosting visitors, and moreso, knowing that their community’s name gets to the States on a coffee bag – it’s frenetic. Which is to say, from Brian’s point of view, the purpose of our visit was to help invigorate, and we did our best indeed.

Hog prize

Which brings me to our final day in, Waingar. This is the day we reveal the winners of the cupping competition.

It’s no exaggeration, hundreds of people attended. Brian worked all night erecting the stage, decorating the area, preparing gifts (sweet potatoes) for all AAAK members that attended. He also has a couple additional guests, a speaker from the Simbu county Ag Board (who we picked up ad-hoc along the way — remember how strategic I think Brian is?) and a representative from Care International and the savings bank project that will open accounts with Waingar farmers right onsite at the end of the event. Part of Brian’s new docketing system is direct payments into farmers’ bank accounts, with some automatically going to a separate savings. Again, a nod to the thoroughness of the vision and exacting execution and follow-through.

It’s the day of the event, and I’m thinking through what I’m going to say. I consider a redo of a joke that bombed during my opening speech in Kesevaka – I resist. We begin with a beautiful sing-sing welcome where we’re all escorted via locked hands, with fully decorated young women of Waingar, for what seems like a sweaty-palmed awkward eternity for us all, I’m sure.

Personally, I can’t wait. For two reasons. First, I’m genuinely excited. And more importantly, I’ve been promised that Taylor gets to personally hand-off the sow and bull pigs that will be awarded as second prize. And as you see above, the local reporter that traveled with us chose that EXACT photo for print!.

These prize pigs, we saw later, were donated back to AAAK’s training center to begin their first piggery!Literally returning the prize pig to AAAK so they can begin the breeding center

The awards are emotional in PNG. Farmers literally just start howling with pride. The Kopio chairman was carried to the stage. It was real. This wasn’t another coop meeting. This was a celebration, with delegates from the USA. This was a stepping stone back to self-reliance. Brian said, “You see. We told you that they would come, we told you they would buy, they are here. Now you see,”

This was the start of a road that the next generation can walk confidently – expecting that as they invest, as they resist the call of that city life, that their sweat will be rewarded with a dignified life that allows them to surely provide for their families, and slowly improve their economic position.

Today – I write this after a walk on the beach in East New Britain. Tiny town of Kokopo, which is the city center after the volcano in Rabual destroyed the old downtown. As you walk off the hotel beach you get to the local beach, filled with banana boats and their betel nut chewing owners – waiting around to take goods and passengers across to the Duke of York islands a few miles off the coast. At the end of the beach, I run into a few young folks with curious smiles on their faces. University kids – studying education – having a few beers on a Friday. We get to chatting. After they get done explaining that they like Americans because they really can’t understand a lick of English from Aussies or Kiwis, I find out that two of them are from the Western Highlands. They grew up in Mt. Hagen – an hour or so from our awards ceremony in Waingar. They know the AAAK coop. Their families are farmers.

Ben “Everyone says the young folks aren’t staying on the farm, they come to the cities for jobs”

Sam: “Yes, that’s true. But most don’t find any good work”

Ben “Brian says that farmers can make good money if they work hard on the farm, and have many incomes from agriculture. Is that true? Can you make good money if you stay”

Sam: It’s true! The farmers are rich! Really.

Damned if Brian ain’t right. His leadership, vision and work ethic are flooring. If you’ve had anything to do with this coffee – I hope you get goosebumps. This is a real one.

I wrote a brief blog before travelling to Papua New Guinea for the first time. Now I am back after a short trip to the Highlands, and thought that my armchair article (here) could benefit from a recap. There are a few points I made which deserve different emphasis. Not so much misstatements as understatements, lacking in context. And so, those of you interested in smallholder specialty coffees from PNG, read on for context. —  Jake Elster, Crop to Cup Coffee Importers. August 5th 2016.

map of Papua New Guinea Highlands

 on airstrip coffee and geography

Unlike other coffee-growing areas I’ve been too, once you get there, PNG is incredible accessible. Ninety percent of the country’s coffee comes from the Highlands region, which stretches between the Southern Highlands, Western Highlands, Simbu (or Chimbu) Province, the Eastern Highlands and Morobe Province. Between Simbu and the Western Highlands there is a new Province as of 2016 called Jiwaka Province; this is still not show on many (any?) maps. The town of Hagen in Western Highlands, and moreso Goroka, in the Eastern Highlands, serve as points of collection for smallholder or ‘airstrip’ coffee.

Further East, in Morobe, you’ll find the port town of Lae as another collection center for what is known as ‘coastal coffee’. Whereas airstrip coffee comes into Hagen or (more often) Goroka by truck (or plane), coastal coffee comes into Lae by boat. This could be lower altitude farms around Lae, or from farms which find it easier to go north, to the ocean, as opposed to South and East across a mountains and valleys. Since coffee is not tracked as it crosses provinces there is no reliable count as to what coffee comes from where, however most Y-grade coffee (read: smallholder parchment, read: 90% of the country’s export volume) comes through Goroka.

You would know this immediately upon landing in Goroka, a shining town clearly cut out of the wild landscape. If you are sitting on the right during landing, and look out the window, you will see every PNG exporter’s office lined up along the airstrip. Goroka is a coffee town – it’s why you come here. And it’s well located; 3 hours in either direction will take you through a vast majority of the Highlands growing region.

But what variety you can find this relatively short stretch! Loamy grasslands, volcanic foothills, limestone river basins – you probably toss an aerobe from one micro-climate to the next. And this is where the future PNG’s specialty coffee becomes interesting.

Unlike other coffee growing regions of the world, villages in PNG are organized along house-lines. This means that each village is one extended family, making lot separation by nano-region more possible.

REGIONAL CUP CHARACTERISTICS.  Over time the world can look forward to exploring this rich variety, one village at a time. But before getting to the village level we first need to get lots separated by District. There are multiple Districts in each Province, and anecdotally at least, we have an idea of what flavors to expect out of coffees from each province.

Now what follows is far from fact, but moving from West to East there seems to be a clear drift in cup characteristics. Mount Hagen in the Western Highland has cold wind over sandy, loamy soils, which may contribute to the heavy body and intense character of coffees from this region.  Simbu Province is high atop limestone; local buyers said they could recognize beans from this area from their darker green appearance. The Eastern Highlands are known for producing more neutral, tea-like profiles except for coffee collected from around the town of Kainantu, which is heavier and more full in character (like coffee from around Hagen). Like Hagen, this could be because the cool breeze from the coast makes it’s way through a valley and all the way to Kainantu, making it colder than other parts of the Eastern Highlands.  Furthest east is the Province of Morobe which, generally at lower altitudes, produces coffee with heavier body and lower acidity.

 on grading and smallholders

My last article spent a lot of time talking about the grading system in PNG, only to find that it’s soon to change yet again. More, for now at least, terminology is likely to differ supplier to supplier.

The good news is that these changes are being driven in the interest of quality, and towards the potential, eventual benefit of smallholders. To review, grades were initially assigned according to where coffee was purchased – all smallholders fit into one category, ‘Y-Grade’. Later this was expanded with the Premium Smallholder Coffee (PSC) Grade, a premium grade given to any smallholder coffee coming from a controlled point of purchase (i.e., consistency from cherry through drying).

PREMIUM SMALLHOLDER COFFEE. The PSC grade is a benefit buyers, like us, who will pay exporters a premium to juice up our ‘Y’ grades. Next, this premium benefits those blockholders who can sell in cherry to wetmills and estates and receive a portion of that premium. Note that Estates get ~60% of their coffees from neighboring blockholders. And, lastly, the PSC premium benefits those few smallholders wo are members of a cooperative and who are lucky enough to live close enough to a Centralized Processing Unit (CPU).

To recap, the PSC premium is an additional designation for Y-grade coffees which have been treated consistently from collection in the cherry, through pulping, processing and drying. This means that if they can deliver in the cherry the farmer gets a better price (about 20 Toyah / Kilo cherry, equal to 1 Kina per kilo parchment, or ~$.20 USD / lb in green eqv).

To get this price, however, farmers need to deliver cherry.  Cherry, which is five times as heavy as parchment. Long distances. In all this means that the PSC premium is open only to those who live close to a CPU, estate or wet mill, or who hire transport whose cost is nearly equivalent to the PSC premium. Where you live, more than anything, is what decides how your coffee gets categorized through the system as it is today.

COFFEE INDUSTRY CORPORATION. The ‘system’ I’m referring to is the grading system and other standards maintained by the Papua New Guinea’s Coffee Industry Corporation Ltd (CIC). Despite the corporate name, the CIC is a governmental body responsible for ‘providing leadership and support’ to the country’s coffee sector

And they have new leadership themselves; although acting since 2015 Mr. Charles Dambui was recently elected the acting CEO of the CIC. A few of Mr. Dambui’s new programs point towards progress – at least in the eyes of those looking for sustainable and sensational smallholder coffees.

For example, they are a few years into a regional quality competition which, to-date, has yet to pull off anything open to outside buyers. Each district has winners roll up to a province-wide competition which, in turn, feeds into a national competition.

Interested I contacted the CIC and, within a week, arranged to have Crop to Cup host the first international cupping of these competition coffees. This is not only very exciting for us, but a positive endorsement of the CIC’s attitude towards working with others.

We will have to wait and see what comes out of this event – to be hosted in NYC at a TBD date. But for now we know that this coffee competition is raising awareness of quality amongst some farmers, and has the potential to help us all learn about what micro-lots are available from the different micro-climates.

Auction coffees area always the exception, but when combined with the CIC’s new quality-based grading system the impact could be more micro-lots coming available at export. It appears as if the new system, not yet in effect, would provide a quality-based grade of ‘A’ or ‘B’ to Y grade coffees. These would have higher standards for liquoring and green bean defects.

Though not regardless of where it was grown, or how it was purchased, such a system would allow for coffee collected in parchment some upward mobility. It might put incentives in place for more micro-lots to make their way up to the export level, even as ‘airstrip’ coffee (in parchment). It might also be an indication that top-lots are going to get a bit more expensive now that exporters can classify coffees in a way that’s more calibrated with specialty markets. It is not, however, a sure thing that these premiums will trickle down to the farm-gate level anytime soon, especially in the absence of well-led cooperatives. And so, as far as farmer benefit goes, this is another ‘wait-and-see’ program to me. But it is a better system for specialty coffee buyers, and does pave the way for farmers to receive quality-based incentives at some undetermined point down PNG’s road ahead.

on cooperatives, blockholders and estates

CHALLENGES FOR SMALLHOLDER COOPERATIVES. My previous article mentioned, off-hand, that smallholders were the future of coffee in PNG. But it did not address why there are so few smallholder cooperatives in PNG. While I reserve the right to change my mind as I learn more, our most recent conversations point to a few reasons for this.

Coffee is not a big deal to farmers in PNG. Family is. Coffee pays for the exchanges and social obligations one had to every marriage, birth and death in their house-line or clan. It paid the school fees for children. It pays for metal roofs, a practical and visible sign that you are providing for your family, and progressing as a household.

But getting there means getting your coffee to market. This is not an easy task for any subsistence smallholder, especially one in a terrain such as PNG. In other parts of the world this is where the smallholder cooperative comes in to help get their member’s coffee to market. But, as their name implies, cooperatives require cooperation.

Cooperation is made more challenging by a complex web of family and tribal relationships, which leads to small circles of trust. Outside the family, or certain negotiated relationships, there is not enough social capital for easy trust. While most everyone speaks the national language of Tok Pisam, this pidgin described to me as incapable of narrating a boxing match. The language is lacking in nuance, leading to the heavy use of metaphor and a real chance of miscommunication.

When it comes to cooperation these cultural challenges by a real lack of infrastructure, but human and physical. Since reforms in the ‘80s forbid any foreigner from owning farms there has been a marked decline in the financial and human capital required to get coffee to market.

Trees are old; 30-40 years old on average. They are of good stock and properly spaced, and even stumped in some cases. But they are not pruned and have incredibly low yield. Looking at a coffee garden next to someone’s vegetable garden and you see where their passion is. Coffee isn’t taken seriously – it’s certainly not a business. Even if you don’t take much care of your coffee tree you get some money from it. But if you don’t tend to your vegetables everyday you get nothing. And so when you go to bend your back you do so to create beautiful raised vegetable gardens instead of repopulating aging fields of coffee.

Farmers are choosing vegetables over coffee, and that is a big deal for those of us who enjoy PNG-style deliciousness. Over recent years exporters have seen a decrease not only in the quantity, but in the quality of coffee that gets to them in Goroka.

 on blending and lot separation 

Maybe I can make this more interesting by reminding you that 85-90% of the country’s exports are Y-grade smallholder coffees. Smallholders from literally hundreds upon hundreds of micro-climates. More than micro-climates, each village has a slightly different way of growing and processing coffees. This variety is what gives even the most conventional Y-grade it’s flavor and complexity. But, as of now, this coffee is blended before it gets up to export.

Blending starts at the farm level; farmers will use coffee to pay off social obligations first, then sell whatever is left to the market. There is no tracking coffee as it travels across borders, nor as it changes hands between truckers, middle-men or the other agents who aggregate ‘airstrip coffee’. Even Estate coffees, perhaps your safest bet for traceability, purchase over half of the coffees they sell as parchment from neighboring blockholders.

For farmers to care about their coffee they need a few things to happen. Namely they need to know that their coffee is not being blended. Right now coffee is out of sight and out of mind at upon delivery. But it is different when you know that your brand reaches coffee lovers. When you know that one buyer keeps your coffee separate while others blend, you give that collector your very best beans.

What farmers really need is to take care of their coffee gardens – they could double their yield, and income, through standard Good Agricultural Practices. While they are caught in a cycle of neglect and indifference, perhaps the PSC premium – because it multiples the value of every Kilo delivered – would be the incentive that leads to better care of trees.

PSC premiums would help farmers to sustain momentum, and pay up for labor or transport if needed. Getting there requires that cooperatives expand collection centers, and/or providing transport through donkeys or zip lines.

 apo, angra, anga and kange cooperative

AAAK Cooperative, for example, operates three collection centers to service about a quarter of their 64 cluster groups. They intend on building three more to cover up to extend the PSC premium to about half of their members. And the CIC’s new grading system makes the room for premiums for parchment collected from the other half, at some point, if the coop is strong.

For a coop to be strong it needs to involve younger generations. This is true across the world where students and young adults leave the security of the farm for the excitement of the city.  Involvement in coffee gives young people more connections in their community, provides the labor needed during harvest and keeps continuous the knowledge passed down from parent to child.

And for this reason I was impressed to see AAAK Cooperative hire a youth programs coordinator, for this very purpose. This is the biased account of a specialty coffee buyer who was recently blown away by the hospitality, vitality and possibility of PNG. A promise, really, which in my mind is embodied by the AAAK Cooperative.

And so if you are interested in the future of smallholder specialty coffees from PNG then I recommend you keep an eye on AAAK; as leaders they will be the first to encounter – and overcome – the many challenges ahead. Also keep an ear out for that CIC regional coffee auction mentioned earlier; it could point you where to look for younger AAAK-type cooperatives.

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