DPI Office Minj
DPI Office Minj

By John Fowke

Many people of long experience in PNG’s coffee industry are very concerned at the decline in annual yield. Following a 20 year period where PNG shipped an annual average of 1 million export bags there is a definite decline in production.

Over-aged and even morbid, the trees right across the major coffee-producing districts are far past economic yields. Coffee produces well for up to 20 years in the typical small-grower situation. Trees which are left to survive under heavy shade, but without fertilisation or regular maintenance are still flowering and producing reasonable crops at this age.

But PNG’s tree-stock, or the majority of it, was planted in a huge surge of popular enthusiasm in the late ‘fifties through the early ‘sixties. Much of it is now around fifty years old. Coffee-growing countries we compete against are re-planting on a 12-year rotational basis. Eight percent of the area of each farm is inter-planted with new seedlings each year and the old trees are progressively removed, first pruned to two, then one upright, and ultimately cut off and taken away. In the mean time a new block is inter-planted each year and the process rolls on. A twelve-year revolving cycle the like of which has never been contemplated, let alone implemented, in PNG.

We have a great deal of work to do if coffee is to survive as the second-largest export earner in the tree-crop sector. The crop for 2012, less carryover from 2011, was around 600,000 bags. This year, as at end July, observers are predicting a crop of around 700,000 bags. Apprehension will fill the hearts of those who make it an annual task to observe and interpret the new flowerings, due in August-September. These flowerings will tell the story of next year’s result. Like your body in old age, the trees are tired and no longer fruitful. They will no longer carry great white blankets of flowers, flowers which attract a multitude of bees and give life to a display of bright, shiny-red cherries each containing the two beans which are such a popular commodity across the world. Like this writer, these trees are fit only for retirement, not for reproduction.

There is a need for great energy and  enthusiasm from the extension-workers employed by the industry to become travelling “coffee evangelists.” They should move from village to village, complete with blanket, pillow, cup and plate. Message-carriers in the old-fashioned “didiman” mould, staying overnight in villages so as to spread their message in the evening, when the people are all present and at their most receptive. Discussion around a fire, exchanges of ideas and experience in a low-key, informal way. This is the right extension methodology here. Here in the hauslains, in the evenings, is where ideas are absorbed and held, and where plans develop into action with commitments made in front of the whole clan.

Generational, attitudinal change, population and land pressures leading to trade in garden-land in some districts, a new appreciation of opportunity costs as coffee crops slowly diminish in size. These factors are driving change today. For those situated near main centres, vegetable-growing is becoming a more valuable investment in land and time, and old coffee-gardens are being cleared and turned over to intensive food-cropping.

For farmers who live in districts served by the ever-deteriorating secondary road systems, and for those whose access to markets is only by small aeroplane services, vegetables do not present an opportunity and these people persist with their ageing coffee-gardens and continue to introduce their children to the methods of care and preparation of coffee for sale. The older generation knows from experience that new cash-crop initiatives and re-made or repaired road-systems are not to be expected.

Coffee, being light in weight whilst high in relative value, and able to be stored after drying, remains the only local source of cash income in these districts, regardless of the rise and fall of the world price. Coffee is all there is and coffee must remain and be tended. For today a source of cash is as much a part of subsistence as the staple foods which all these families grow. The young, or most of them, will continue in this environment, and must continue to tend and prepare coffee along with the garden-produce upon which they will live throughout their lives.

Coffee-growing must be supported and enhanced in all these communities by means of instruction and example whereby a simple even if laborious program of renewal is accepted as necessary and entered into. Beginning this year. Now. In 2013.

The massively-funded World Bank-designed PPAP program being administered by CIC is all very well  in a vigorous, productive industry setting. But as of today, in PNG, it completely misses the point. Any enhancement of gross income from improved and institutionally-certified coffee –( Fairtrade, Organically Grown, Bird-Friendly etc. etc.)- is never going to provide more than a 10% gross increase in FOB or export value.

Compare this with an increase in annual production from the current average of, say 750,000 bags to an average, easily achievable, of 1,250,000 bags at the same FOB price. Increase in production wins hands down. This is where all the resources should be spent. Fancy marketing promotion is fine but it should be an adjunct, not a main aim towards increased prosperity in coffee-growing districts. PNG has produced more than a million bags per annum regularly in the past two decades and there is absolutely no physical or environmental barrier to it doing so again. Leadership with initiative is the only element needed.

PNG has always been able to sell all the coffee it grows, and it has  strong and long-established connections with users who know and appreciate what is produced here. Fine to go along with improved quality and with marketing ploys like certification, but the majority of small growers will continue to produce the majority product because of the conditions they work and live in. They make a product which, once passed through the factories and export warehouses where it is cleaned and sorted, is long-established and appreciated by roasters across the world. The most popular coffees in Australia, New Zealand, and in PNG and the Pacific are Nestle’s soluble products “Blend 43” and “Niugini Blend”. These are blends comprising at least 40% of PNG-grown coffee. This is the reality of the coffee trade. Its about giving major roasters what they need to satisfy their regular customers. This is ongoing, every-year business. These old-established clients of ours deal in tens of thousands of bags, annually, ex-Lae. Not in a pallet-of-this and two-pallets-of-that. And they come back every year for more.

There is a further problem to be faced in the planning and implementation of a nation-wide coffee replanting push. Our coffee-scientists and extension-planners at DAL and at CIC will not agree that using growers’ own hand-selected coffee-cherry for seedling production is appropriate. At the same time, supplies of officially-approved seed and approved ex-nursery seedlings are extremely irregular in availability and are expensive, many growers say.

Past attempts by CIC over many years at “ central nursery projects” have not resulted in any measurable improvement. Records show that these programs have been a waste of resources, often being managed by CIC Board-members as opposed to extension officers.

The guardians of the industry, well-educated and technologically-savvy people, rule with great firmness to the effect that coffee-growing by smallholders must be conducted using standards and inputs which have been learned in their own progress to the important positions they hold today. However the methodology being insisted upon, speaking very broadly, is appropriate to capital-driven corporately-owned plantations of which there are fewer than twenty remaining in good order in PNG. It is a methodology appropriate to an industrialised  enterprise where large orchards or farms are the basis of production.

Here mechanisation, agro-chemical inputs and labour-saving techniques are paramount. Labour-cost is minimised as a prime principle. Conversely it is the notionally-free labour input of the small coffee grower and his family, their physical energy, which drives the cash-flow of subsistence farmer-coffee-growers enterprises. Modern way is not necessarily the best or most productive way here. Economists should note this and write about the case of the small coffee-grower and his naive but logical calculation of opportunity-cost. Then they should talk to the industry’s extension people about it.

Thus our advisers recommend the use of plastic planter-bags, which are to be filled with a self-draining mix of sand and soil- ( sand..? where from..?? carry it in bags..?? tractor..?? tractor nogat, karim tasol…!)-and the bags are then placed under green plastic shade-cloth shelters. In the smallholder situation –( and in the case of many of the “nursery projects” in the past)- this sets up a disastrous start to a well-meaning effort at rehabilitation. Bagged seedlings dry out fast and need daily watering. Carrying large volumes of water is very labour-intensive; laborious in the true meaning of the word. And  heavily-shaded-( shade-cloth-shaded)- coffee plants don’t grow well after an early stage. They struggle for light and water, grow tall and thin and poor in quality. This all goes completely against the common-sense and time-honoured technique of bare-earth nurseries which draw moisture in as it is used and need only infrequent manual watering: and against using kunai or pitpit thatch for shade. This thatch is thinned out slowly, allowing the seedlings to develop strength, size, and healthy root-systems with slowly-increasing energy derived from slowly intensified sunlight. Growth proceeds as the roofing-material is progressively thinned out. This as opposed to the long, skinny, unthrifty, pot-bound products of the costly and officially-recommended shade-cloth-covered, plastic-bag method.

Senile Coffee Tree- Asaro Valley
Senile Coffee Tree- Asaro Valley

Experience proves that the simpler method of production allied with early-morning transfer of bare-root seedlings to pre-dug planting holes works extremely well. Results will reward growers who practice this method of regeneration.

To admit to growers that it is better to use seedlings grown from the fruit of selected trees which each grower knows as reliable, prolific parents, than to join the long queue for expensive, stunted, pot-bound seedlings or dry seeds produced at the research stations of CIC is more than the experts can do. To them it means a denial of all they have worked hard to learn. But this is shallow reasoning. In times of threatened disaster such as the coffee-rust scare of 1986-87, and in terms of guarding the industry against the advance of other bad diseases from the Indonesian border, the scientists and extension people have done very well. In developing PNG-appropriate shading, spacing, nutritional and pest-control regimes as well as a valuable plant-breeding program these men and women are to be congratulated. But they should reconsider their position on plant production and replanting without fear of losing face. This is the method to adopt in the current crisis. It is essential that a simple minimal-cost replanting program is carried out.

Renewal by inter-planting- a new plant between every two old trees, placed in the last two months of next year- 2014- after the onset of the wet season, using plants grown beginning in November THIS year must begin. Planning and spreading the word to growers should begin immediately. Now. August 2013.

This action will ensure that PNG’s tree-stock is renewed and first plantings are in bearing in 2019. Once this initial planting program is complete and plants are developing, then the whole program should roll on. A second nursery is prepared and a second block should be identified. As the trees in the first block develop the mature trees should be pruned down to two, and then one upright, and finally these can be removed entirely leaving the new trees to thrive.

Yes, it is a very big job. A very big “ask” when put to the growers, but the message is plain and will be readily understood. It is essential that growers are given a clear, graphically-illustrated and pamphlet-accompanied understanding of the problem and the approach to be taken to solve it. If this is not done, then without a reasonable income from coffee the average coffee-growing family in all districts will be back in the conditions of their as-tanket-wearing, cashless, steel-less, stone-age grandfathers of the post-World War II era.

But these people are living in a very different social environment. Time has brought them views of new worlds and a list of new needs which may only be satisfied with cash. A multitude of costly but now essential goods, services and artefacts of the modern age.

Subsistence-dweller poverty, the result of the failure of the coffee industry, will be the root cause of rising anger against the unidentifiable “them”; the wealthy, the educated, the empowered. And of rising violence as frustration reaches an intolerable pitch. This is not just a coffee-industry problem. This is a huge social problem-in-the-making.


  1. Hi John, I appreciate your analyses of the declining coffee production in PNG, my best attempt to answer your question has been sabotage by the mismanagement of a trial (B6) set to answer that very question (while this is on station), yet I would like to also say that it is not true that we continue to discourage use of under growths, rather we do encourage farmers to use under growths as long as the roots are taken care of apart from other husbandry practice. I do concur that our livelihood studies show a declining farm size in densely populated Asaro valley compared to remote Baira in Obura Wonenara, at the same we have discovered that farmers do have knowledge of best pruning practice but cannot prune their coffee, there is this resistance, the challenge with your suggestion to replant every 12 years is going to be a big ask as you put it right, when they cannot prune once every four to five years, how could they uproot every 12 year, I guess money talks and when they see it they will dance, so we just have to do that, short cut the value chain and bingo. Cheers.

  2. Hi John,

    Appreciate your bold comments… and you have said it well. As you have indicated, the coffee industry holds the rural people of this country, especially the people in the 20 coffee growing provinces. When something goes wrong with coffee in PNG, everything in the rural coffee growing areas will go wrong. Most of the things you have mentioned are critical and therefore required critical thinking.

    I think the best way forward for the coffee industry in PNG is for every stakeholder (National Government, Donors, CIC, farmers, traders, etc) to plan and provide a way forward. I think we need to connect the missing dots.



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