PNG’s Coffee Industry Suffering From Poor Planning, Management

‘Ageing trees, lack of plantation maintenance and crumbling infrastructure’ will hinder future success

By PNG correspondent Eric Tlozek

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, August 17, 2016) – Ageing trees, lack of plantation maintenance and crumbling infrastructure are all reducing Papua New Guinea's coffee harvest and undermining the industry's future in the nation.

Coffee growers and processors in Papua New Guinea say they fear for the future of the industry, even as it finishes a good season.

The coffee harvest is just ending in PNG highlands, where the crop is a key industry for half-a-million people who grow it on small farming blocks.

But ageing trees, lack of plantation maintenance and crumbling infrastructure are all reducing PNG's harvest and undermining coffee's future viability.

Agriculturist David Freyne has worked in numerous senior roles in PNG's coffee industry.

"The industry at the moment is at a pretty low ebb," he said. 

"Its potential is tremendous but the management of the industry has left a lot to be desired.

"The condition of the coffee, smallholder coffee — which is the major component of the industry at the moment — farmers have lost interest."

Industry studies show 95 per cent of PNG's coffee is produced by so-called "smallholder growers", who typically have less than 1,500 trees.

This is a major change from the early days of the industry, when there were more than 150 commercial plantations, many owned by foreigners.

Now the small farmers — many located in rugged, remote areas — sell to buyers who transport the coffee to processors.

But unless they are part of support schemes, the smallholders rarely maintain or replant their trees and their yields are falling.

Plantation owner and coffee processor Bill Gardner said this was partly due to the volatility of coffee prices, but also because of poor education, a lack of law and order and failing infrastructure.

"The PNG coffee industry, I believe, is at a critical crossroads of becoming a minor industry," he said.

"A lot of our rural infrastructure in roads, bridges has deteriorated and we can't get access to half the places we used to before, so our actual production nationally is decreasing.

"There are probably less coffee trees in the ground today than there were 10 years ago."

Another issue for growers is the quality of the coffee produced.

Smallholder coffee is typically sold as a lower-priced "Y" grade unless the ripe cherries are bought by a high-end processor.

That's because of variability in how the coffee is handled and processed, but many growers complain about receiving a lower price and some turn to other crops.

Smallholder Samson John, from the Western Highlands, said 2016 prices were low, at a time when growers were already struggling.

"Coffee helps us generate our income but the bad economic situation in the country and the low coffee price means the money we get is not enough to sustain our livelihood," he said.

"Life is hard."

Education growers the key, say industry figures

Mr Gardner and other industry figures say educating and supporting growers will keep them interested in the crop, improve the volume of their harvests, and get them a higher price for their coffee.

"Over the last couple of years when prices have been low, growers aren't very interested in planting up much more coffee," Mr Gardner said.

"If we could get better prices, have a more stable, higher price for our growers here it would encourage a lot more growing and the industry would actually grow of its own accord."

There are several programs aimed at rehabilitating PNG's coffee industry, the largest being the Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Program funded by the World Bank, the European Union and the International Fund for Agricultural Development, which helps growers buy equipment and encourages the planting of new trees.

Industry figures remain positive about coffee's future in Papua New Guinea, but they say growers and processors need to improve their standards or risk becoming irrelevant in the world market.

Mr Gardner wants PNG, which produces low volumes but has good growing conditions, to focus on quality coffee.

"We should aim to be the special coffee country in the world. I believe that's achievable," he said.

"It's just going to take a lot of training, educations and money spent in the right places." 

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