Papua New Guinea 2017 – Anything Can Happen!

This past month I traveled to Papua New Guinea for five days to check in on the farmers of the Purosa highlands, their co-op leaders and mill operators in Goroka. My wife Kat, CFO of Vournas Coffee Trading, our son Zach and Craig and Heather McConaghy of Coffee Connections were there to join me on the adventure. Together we shook hands and spoke with everyone from the Purosa farms down to the mill and warehouse workers, all while being treated to the incredible generosity and friendship of the Purosa community who have been here producing coffee on their native land for generations.

Getting there took five separate flights and a total of 23 hours; when we landed in Port Moresby, just a short jump from our final destination in Goroka, we were notified last minute that our flight would be cancelled. No reason! All that way and so close! Just a single charter flight away from our destination and sorry, come back tomorrow! Did I also mention that my luggage was lost? I’ve been here before and should’ve seen this coming! This is totally normal for Papua New Guinea…things don’t exactly go according to plan here. Anything can happen!

So we crashed for the night in Port Moresby and the next day we made it to Goroka and hit the ground running. Our first stop was a visit to the Goroka Coffee Connections export mill and warehouse. This is where all the parchment eventually arrives before it’s prepped, sorted and packaged and shipped out. It was here that Craig introduced us to the hard working people that make Papua New Guinea coffee production possible. They take their jobs seriously and we could feel the commitment and dedication that they have for not only managing the logistics but for each other. It is truly a community spirit and so it was a great pleasure to see the warehouse operation running so well thanks to Craig, his partner Henry, and decades of hard work.

The next day we flew to Purosa by helicopter due to the fact that the road to Purosa was, as Craig described it, in axle breaker condition. Even in an off-road vehicle it can still be a treacherous trip that can take seven hours or more each way, and I’m betting you’ll still get stuck in the mud at least once! Everything here is difficult. Getting things accomplished takes resolve and resourcefulness, and without any infrastructure in the Purosa highlands everything is repurposed, reused, recycled or upcycled! Getting things done may take a long time, but when it finally does happen, it’s a big deal!

During our flight from Goroka to Purosa Village at 5,000 feet elevation we were treated to an unbelievable adventure. From inside the helicopter the view of Purosa is incredible. The village itself is perched on a cliff’s edge overlooking the jungles, grasslands and farm plots all around it. It also gives you a sense of the difficult life here; nothing is easy to get to! As we approached the landing spot, undoubtedly the approaching roar of the rotors gave us away, and out of the thatched roof huts a swarm of locals began to emerge. Craig was soon giving our introduction, as only he can speak in pidgin, and we were all given honorary ceremonial “billums” to wear around our neck. After exchanging greetings, I was able to express our appreciation of their kindness and speak about the quality of their coffee, the value of their hard work, its merits that have strengthened their community and our green coffee trading partnership as a whole. Of course, Craig had to help translate a bit!

As we walked the farm signs of sustainable practices were everywhere. The first stop was the new sapling nursery that is fertilized with natural compost from dried cherry pulp. This made me SO happy to see! This nursery not only provides new crop for the farm, but it also is developing a backup crop in case of emergency like rust or as they informed us, beetle borers which have now apparently made their way to PNG. But let’s stick to the good news—for the first time we saw a series of raised beds being used side-by-side their traditional, pragmatic sun-drying tarps, large shade trees still being cultivated, and on top of all that there were very good signs of a healthy and thriving bee population. As we were walking through the coffee trees the farmer was actually stung. We were quite alarmed and asked if he was alright, but he said that was not unusual and it didn’t seem to bother him much. The farm also recently began a pruning program with the help of the co-op, which is definitely news for a place where parchment is essentially a currency. Growers are understandably reluctant to prune because it sacrifices current profits for those of the next season.

Next we moved on to the newly re-opened Purosa dry mill that’s been dormant for the past 16 years. We were thrilled to see it back up and humming away! Here again sustainable efforts were at work—discarded dried parchment is used like coal to operate and heat the dry mill. How’s that for innovation? It would seem that the new generation of Purosa growers are doing a fantastic job working with HOAC (Highlands Organic Agricultural Cooperative) leaders Daniel, Ricky and Robert to build themselves a sustainable future in Fair Trade coffee.

On our way out Craig was given some microlot samples that had been set aside for us sample—more on that later. We thanked everyone and said our goodbyes before getting back into the helicopter and getting one last look at the village and farm. As the helicopter took us away, I pondered how the people of Purosa are taking coffee production to the next level. The new mill, the pruning operation, the nursery – all signs point to a prosperous future, and I have to say, I’ve never been so proud or impressed to be a small part of it. What we witnessed left us with a great sense that the newer generation is readily taking the reigns, focusing on quality and implementing ideas that we have championed, but never demanded.

Back in Goroka, Henry, Craig’s partner at Coffee Connections is currently running for a congressional seat. When we got back he took us on a tour of the villages he would hopefully be representing, including his home village in “Ketamo” just outside Goroka. We visited the elementary school and gave them packages of pens, pencils, paper and different supplies. Next we went to a rally for Henry where probably five to seven hundred people showed up! Henry was helping to distribute chickens, prepared meat, fruits and vegetables to everyone as a show of leadership. This was a completed unexpected and amazing event for us to witness. Good luck Henry, we’re cheering for you!

We were later treated to a performance of the Goroka Mud Men, a ghostly and intentionally unnerving performance that was originally used to ward off rival tribes that encroached on tribal-controlled Goroka. Their bodies are covered in mud, while oversized sculpted masks are worn over their heads to mimic certain spirits as they stalk onlookers through clouds of smoke.

But let’s get back to business. Remember those microlots? I can’t tell you what an amazing experience it was for me to helicopter out of PNG holding a single kilo of coffee in my hands, boarding an airplane out the country still holding it, and then have the opportunity to roast and cup it in between, all in the matter of 72 hours—very, very cool! The result? APPROVED!

In the cup: good acidity, notes of apricot, slight cocoa, slight orange-citrus sugary sweetness. Look for a September or October arrival, we hope! (Finger’s crossed!) We think you’ll be very happy with their quality and in knowing that the farmers are getting a great deal in exchange for this first of it’s kind, unique PNG microlot that will be yet another exclusive, available only to those ‘in the know’ here at Vournas Coffee Trading! We’re still working on names but will likely name them after James Kinne, the Purosa village chief and recently deceased father of HOAC founding member, Daniel. While there we visited James’ burial site to pay our respects, and think this would be great way to honor his legacy.

This community deserves all the credit in the world for their commitment to each other, for their hard work and also for being producers of great coffee. My son Zach had never visited any place like this in his life. I was so thankful to have him and Kat along for the trip to see what I’ve been boasting about for all these years. At one point, Zach told me that he was enjoying Papua New Guinea because it WAS so different and so imperfect. “Dad,” he says, “anything can happen!” Things don’t run perfect, everything takes extra time, and for the most part the bumps in the road are completely unavoidable and totally out of your hands. Things move slower and it’s a big deal when that thing finally gets finished. We’re very eager to see what’s in store for the future of Purosa and Goroka; with a new generation working towards better opportunities for themselves and their families, the opportunity for better crops, better wages, more profit and better education seems like a future well within reach.

The people here do an incredible job working with what they have; not a lot of outsiders get to come and witness it for themselves. For me it was like being used to travelling a 100 miles an hour at the office, on the phone, in the cupping room, and then switching to a different, less controlled state of being where you’re just taking it all in – the community, the sights, the smells—you’ve gotta stop and appreciate that. You can’t get that from a desk.

Yours in coffee,

Andrew