November 6, 2019

Staging a Coffee Comeback in Papua New Guinea


The once thriving coffee industry in Papua New Guinea (PNG) is ripe for renewal, and specialty coffee is on the menu as demand for the beverage rises. With foreign buyers sniffing around origin countries, PNG’s coffee industry is once again stretching its legs, while the coffee world waits expectantly. 

Can PNG overcome its history of political and social instability and its current infrastructural, social, and economical problems to be the next big thing in specialty coffee?

Lee este artículo en español Preparando el Regreso Del Café de Papúa Nueva Guinea

Millennials are increasing the demand for specialty coffee. Credit: Nicole Motteux

Who’s Driving The Demand For Specialty Coffee?

The demand for specialty coffee is increasing around the world. Global demand is driven primarily by millennials’ thirst for ‘relationship’ coffee – quality coffee that’s ethically produced and sustainably sourced. Today’s generation of drinkers want more from their coffee. They want to replace drinks with experiences, brands with relationships, and products with stories. 

This shift also reflects a growing consumer awareness around issues of quality, taste, health, environment, equity, and fair wages. Coffee that upholds ethical and agricultural standards means a higher priced product. People are willing to pay, and the burgeoning specialty coffee market has swung into action enthusiastically. 

Currently, specialty consumption is growing by 7-9% a year, and the USA is the largest consuming nation. Specialty coffee markets also have growth potential in emerging markets, where increasingly affluent middle-class populations are becoming consumers. This group now accounts for almost 50% of total global consumption.

Find out more in Why You Need to Offer Millennials More Than Just Coffee

Jiwaka Province’s rugged terrain grows some of the world’s finest coffee. Credit: Tim Bieber,

What Makes PNG Specialty Coffee so Special?

Blessed with the perfect climate and exceptional soil fertility, PNG coffee has all the natural, full-flavoured attributes of top-grade specialty coffee. Farmers can grow many different and exceptional varieties including Blue Mountain, Catimor, Caturra, Mundo Novo, and Arusha. 

“What sets PNG coffee apart from other world-renowned coffee is that it is unique in many ways,” says Mick Wheeler, an international advocate for PNG coffee with over 40 years experience in the industry.

“Coffee is so well suited to the climate here, it has that fantastic blend of flavour, body and balance in the cup that is found in coffees from only a few other origins. But more than that, PNG coffee has an incredible story to tell; it is full of images, ceremonies, dances, rhythms, drama, costumes and colour.” 

The growth in demand for specialty coffee means that for the first time in centuries, farmers and producers on the front lines are getting a foot on the ladder. Price premiums of superior or differentiated coffee can be 20 times that of commodity coffee. The difference this could make to farmers, coffee-growing communities, agriculture productions, and the economy is immense.

You may also like Coffee Origin Spotlight: Papua New Guinea’s Specialty Coffee

We spoke to Ian Mopafi, Chairman of the Coffee Industry Working Group, and coffee exporter. Credit: Nicole Motteux

What Happened to PNG’s Once Thriving Coffee Industry?

Just a few decades ago, PNG had a thriving coffee industry which provided stable jobs, reliable incomes, and a bright future. 

Jamaican Blue Mountain seeds were first planted in the 1920s in the foothills of PNG’s southeastern Sangara province. Early European planters worked with local farmers to establish reliable farming methods and grading systems, and PNG coffee quickly developed into a consistently high-yielding and quality product that was exported across the world

In the 1960s, coffee production was boosted when infrastructure development improved the transportation of coffee beans and equipment, allowing more farms to start trading.

“In the 1960s, coffee was a strong industry and had a good reputation,” says Ian Mopafi, Chairman of the Coffee Industry Working Group. “Coffee gave us opportunities – it paid for our education and provided jobs. Producers invested in the industry with stringent quality control systems. Then, in the 1970s, when frost devastated coffee in Brazil and global supplies were depleted, traders turned to PNG. Coffee production hit an all-time high of 87,000 tonnes in 1999.” 

Since then, however, production has declined, with prices for green beans dropping so low that many farmers are unable to cover their production costs and have been forced to supplement their coffee production by growing other cash crops. 

According to Mick Wheeler, “2002 to 2006 price crises discouraged many growers from continuing in coffee and is the result of a lot of problems: the low price of coffee on the market, lack of investment and younger generation saw the very low returns offered by coffee. Coffee growers in PNG do respond to price incentives and we have seen production expand when prices go up.”

Transportation and infrastructure challenges in Waghi Valley, Jiwaka Province. Credit: Tim Bieber,

Barriers to Local Coffee Production

While PNG’s mountainous soil and climate are perfect for coffee production, its propensity for heavy rains and earthquakes offsets the balance. Of the four regions in PNG, the Highlands account for the majority of national coffee production, but the area lacks adequate infrastructure and equipment to transport beans to the West Coast export port of Lae. 

“The coffee journey from the Highlands to Lae require the truck drivers to brave long hours of navigating giant potholes and steep escarpments,” says David Hannon, CEO of New Guinea Highlands Company and a main exporter of PNG coffee. “During heavy rains, it is barely passable. In some places, they stop the trucks and people have to walk, carrying the heavy sacks of coffee, to get it out.” 

 In other areas of the island, airplanes are the only mode of transporting coffee due to inaccessible terrain. Transporting beans over considerable distances with poor transport infrastructure increases the risk of damage or contamination, resulting in loss of quality.

A 2018 PNG Coffee Market Study by the Pacific Horticultural and Agricultural Market Access Plus Programme identified further obstacles to production. These included political and social instability, language barriers, unemployment, and insufficient law and order systems. 

The latter has encouraged theft, forcing producers to pick their crop prematurely. This results in unripe beans and a lower grade of coffee. 

Inequality is an issue, with close to 40% of PNG’s population living below the poverty line of $2 per day. Around 80% live in rural areas and over 40% depend on coffee for an income. The area is unsafe for women, creating an additional barrier to the specialty coffee market, where women make up the majority of those who harvest and process the crop.

Add to this challenges such as fluctuating world coffee prices, complex and rigid regulatory structures, foreign exchange restrictions, aging trees, and poor pest and disease control, and it’s evident to see that barriers faced by local producers are significant.

Despite this, The study shows that buyers in Australia, Europe, USA, and Japan are very interested in PNG specialty coffee. 

From left to right: Peter Yamane, Mick Wheeler, Pato Kakaraya, and Terry Lau gather as coffee producers, leaders, and experts at the PNG National Coffee Symposium and Expo 2019. Credit: Nicole Motteux

Why PNG Coffee Leaders Are Uniting For Change

In May 2019, PNG held its first National Coffee Symposium and Expo. It was the first time the country’s coffee industry leaders, producers, exporters, government, and stakeholders met in one place to discuss the future of PNG coffee. The aim was to discuss reducing poverty, enhancing environmental sustainability, and taking advantage of the coffee varieties available.

 The event was attended by members of Parliament, key ministers, coffee growers, cooperatives, exporters, processors, millers, service providers, and consumers.

At the event, Coffee Industry Corporation (CIC) CEO Charles Dambui stated that demand for coffee from PNG is set to grow even stronger in the future, as long as producers capitalise on market trends and move to producing specialty, certified coffee.

“Coffee is the country’s second largest agricultural export,” said Steven Tumae, CIC General Manager, in his opening remarks. “We cannot rely totally on bulk coffee, competing against larger, more efficient and productive countries like Brazil, Colombia or Vietnam. We need to pursue specialty markets. Now is the time to take up this challenge to regrow PNG’s coffee industry.” 

 With this in mind, CIC announced their commitment to work with the World Bank funded Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project to facilitate the rehabilitation of run-down blocks and plantations. Tumae hopes that “improving coffee livelihoods will support producers to re-establish and even expand their coffee holdings”.

Sallyn Lumotopa is the founder and producer of GINIPA Single Origin Coffee, which won Best Social Impact Project Award at a Russian awards event. Credit: Nicole Motteux

Women Are The Solution: Taim Blo Senis (Time to Change)

In PNG, women’s empowerment, leadership, and human development is at rock bottom levels. PNG ranked 159 out of 160 countries in the 2017 Gender Inequality Index. Endemic violence against women and a lack of rights mean that PNG women are some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in the world. 

Yet against this backdrop of poverty and oppression it is PNG women who are moving things forward in the specialty coffee industry. They know that it’s the best chance they have to lift their families out of poverty and provide a future for their children. 

Women in PNG are engaged in coffee cultivation, harvesting and processing, but largely excluded when coffee is sold to exporters. Seven years ago, PNG women initiated the Women in Coffee (WIC) Association to get a better deal. 

WIC members access knowledge, information and skills through NGOs, internet, and extension activities. They share their knowledge through workshops and emails, focusing on quality, role models, investment, establishing partnerships, and joining certification programs.

In addition, they produce green beans for export, roasting, cupping, and packing. Their model of knowledge sharing and collective learning means increased earnings for everyone.

“It has to involve the whole family – husbands, wives and children,” says Sallyn Lomutopa, a specialty coffee farm owner and spokesperson for WIC. “Over the last five years, the CARE International program in PNG got us talking together about who does what, money, investing, and growing our business. My family worked out a five year plan. And we are now ready. We have quality steps in place. Our coffee is meeting the international standards required for specialty coffee. We are ready to take our two tonnes to the market. We want the person who drinks it to feel our journey.”

WIC is emerging in different parts of the supply chain: buying, consolidating, and roasting coffee for their own cafés. Katerina Pianga, the co-founder of WIC and owner of the Mount Hagen Airport café in the Highlands says, “I pay the farmer another 2 Kina – up from 4 Kina (US $1) – for high-quality beans because I can sell a really good espresso for 10 Kina (around US $3). Pilots come for their regular coffee. And our favourite pastime is watching barista shows. We love seeing coffee make a difference.”

In addition to the above, women are also pushing for participation in high-level meetings with ministers, coffee board members, donors, and bankers to discuss quality, finance management, and the value of attention to detail. 

Baristas serve coffee at Jackson International Airport’s Duffy Café.Credit: Nicole Motteux

PNG Millennials Drive Change

 Just as millennials in developed countries are demanding specialty coffee in their cafés, young PNG entrepreneurs are forging their own paths in the coffee industry too. 

 Mark Munnull is General Manager of Kosem, a PNG export company. He has partnered with a young café owner, Travers Chue, who recognised a big gap in the market. 

 “In PNG we produce outstanding coffee yet it was hard to find good coffee to drink locally. So, Travers started an espresso bar. It was literally just a hole in the wall. This grew into PNG’s first chain of specialty cafés, Duffys. Kosem supplies the coffee.” 

 Emma Wakpi is another young entrepreneur making a difference in the specialty coffee scene. Born on a coffee farm, Emma has devoted her life to working in community health in remote locations and under-resourced health systems. 

 Backed by her father, she decided to re-open the family coffee mill, Jiwaka Coffee Ltd. in the rugged yet fertile Waghi Valley in Jiwaka province. Now, Emma works with small scale growers to produce specialty coffee. She talks of research, getting every step right, and giving back people pride in their coffee, with a focus on the community and the environment. 

Specialty Coffee Roaster Gina Di Brita cups a PNG specialty coffee. Credit: Numero Uno Coffee Roasters

Vision to Reality: Bringing PNG’s Specialty Coffee to Global markets 

“The specialty sector holds a lot of promise that PNG can and must access but to do so requires a change of approach to ensure consistency and quality,” says Mick Wheeler. “Transforming the sector will require a tremendous commitment.”

This is the challenge the PNG coffee industry now faces. 

For this to happen, there needs to be a radical shift to specialty coffee. Investing in this will open doors to increased income for small growers, enhance PNG’s export capabilities, and increase its foreign exchange revenues. It means that producers must deliver consistent quality across processes and that smallholder producers must harness productivity across the industry.

 A robust system of quality standards and consistency will also be essential, involving everyone from farmers and cooperatives to roasters, buyers, and exporters. The trick in cementing the bond between consumers and producers lies in developing reliable, transparent systems and markets that are easily accessible by all. 

Linking PNG’s high-quality coffee to its heritage and combining this with a commitment to improvement across the industry, could be the path to a stronger future for its people.The dream seems closer to reality today and the future full of possibility for PNG specialty coffee. 

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Written with input by Lilani Goonesena. Feature photo: A coffee farmer picks beans in Mount Hagen, in the PNG Highlands. Feature photo credit: Keith Halden

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