Farm: Various Smallholder farms
Varietal: Primarily Typica & Arusha
Processing: Wet Processed, dried on sails & finished in mechanical driers
Altitude: 1,600+ metres above sea level
Owner: Various Smallholder farms
Town / City: Kainantu, Tairora Province
Region: Eastern Highlands
Solwara AX - 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 coffee, which has been processed at the Solwara Dry Mill, has been produced by such small holder farmers.
Near Kainantu, a market town with the feel of a frontier trading post, Ferro Yasona and his two brothers run the Solwara dry mill, which receives and processes parchment from smallholders in the region. There’s also a small purchasing point immediately outside the dry mill that receives coffee in parchment from local smallholders and pays them cash on the day. Solwara is the pidgin word for ‘salt water’, and the name was chosen to reflect the ambitions of the mill owners to source and process coffees from producers across PNG, from coast to coast.
Solwara also has a wet mill that receives ripe red cherry from nearby plantations, which is then pulped, fermented, washed and sun-dried on ‘sails’. The drying is then finished off in large Asaro driers that use hot air provided by furnaces that burn waste coffee parchment from the hulling process. These lots are typically presented to buyers as the higher quality Plantation-AX grade. Grading in PNG is primarily defined by the coffee’s cup qualities, but it also refers to a maximum permitted defect count. It does not necessarily refer to bean shape or size, though individual lots should be fairly uniformly sized to earn an A grade. A/X means that not only does the coffee cup well (A-grade) but also that the largest and smallest beans have not been included in the lot.
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 Ferro and his brothers. 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.