Papua New Guinea Coffee Legend Craig McConaghy

Portrait of Papua New Guinea Coffee Exporter, Craig McConaghy of Coffee Connections

To the people of Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highlands, Craig McConaghy is many things – cupping guru, community advocate, production consultant, go-to guy and jack of all trades. Since 1969 Craig has been at the center of Papua New Guinea’s coffee production, but these days his daily routine as he describes it involves doing about a million things that have zero to do with coffee and at the same time, everything. It’s our honor to know Craig as an old friend. What’s more, he’s our on the ground contact and green coffee bean supplier and exporter extraordinaire in Papua New Guinea.

Craig began his career in pre-independence Papua New Guinea as a 20 year old patrolman, stationed within the Eastern Highlands in order to establish common law and working relationships within the community. After many years working with the Highlands’ peoples, in the 1980’s Craig began focusing on their coffee/cocoa economics, having recognized the huge potential for coffee to benefit future generations. At some point Craig was asked to be a representative for their coffee venture, being a fluent English speaker and someone they knew they could trust. Craig soon began working with ANGCO as a general manager of several mills, overseeing the process from farm to container and export. Today, six decades after first arriving in Papua New Guinea from his native Australia, Craig has become somewhat of an anomaly in an increasingly globalized coffee world; he is an independent origin consultant that’s managed to unite over 3,000 individual farmers from several different tribes to grow sustainable coffee. His own perception of his role is strikingly more humble—akin to a sort of de-facto PNG community Department of Public Works. In truth, what he’s done is incredible. For countless years PNG tribes have been very territorial and traditionally adversarial. There was a not-too-distant time when trespassing in another tribe’s territory would surely have meant certain death. What Craig has accomplished has taken guts, determination and grit, but at its core it’s been a lifelong love for relationship building with the purpose of preserving indigenous PNG culture and helping their people thrive and prosper.

It was only 1933 when the Purosa and Okapa tribes were first discovered by the west. For generations they were segregated by the region’s many rivers, plains and mountain ranges. The tribes grew up speaking their own dialects, often not knowing of their neighbors or their differing customs. Even today there are over 880 spoken languages among a population of only 3 million Papua New Guineans! Craig is now working with the 2nd and 3rd generations of Purosa, Okapa, and Ivangoi growers. His success is evident in the continued growth of Eastern Highlands coffee and the fact that this current generation has access to more funding and possesses a stronger focus on quality than ever before. Very early on Craig recognized that the coffee producers in the Eastern Highlands were virtually organic by default—the soil was fantastic and the plants were growing wild, but there was little organization around harvesting or production. Craig established organic certification and the organic aspect of production as a means to help the farmers earn better wages and to improve their quality. Fair Trade later ended up becoming an essential component for dealing with local politics and the established pecking order of the community.

Craig and his business partner, Henry Ame, together operate Coffee Connections, currently celebrating its 16th year in business exporting organic, co op fair trade coffee to wholesale distributors worldwide. Henry is the Chief of Kefamo Village, one of many coffee producing communities in Goroka, and as such his responsibility and dedication to the needs of his people go hand-in-hand with the achievements and goals of Coffee Connections.Through the years Henry’s work with Craig has been critical to their success; as an instrumental part of operations and a local representative, Henry’s ability to broker agreements with other local leaders and partners like HOAC (the Highland Organic Agricultural Cooperative) is an invaluable asset. According to Craig, it’s guys like Henry and the leaders of HOAC, Ricky, Daniel, Robert and James, that deserve all the credit. The path forward may have obstacles, but for Craig it’s the understanding that personal commitment must be witnessed and felt that has earned him a part in this tight knit team. In the case of Henry and the members of HOAC, they’ve proven themselves highly capable of responding to international demand and improving farming, processing and overall quality.

In 2013 in a show of leadership, Craig brought a group of PNG farmers to Greenwell Farms, a 100% Kona grower in the heart of Hawaii’s Kona country with the purpose of strengthening the group. Here as a sort of PNG/Big Island Coffee Fellowship everyone was able to engage in an exchange of ideas and techniques on sustainable farming and environmentally friendly coffee growing strategies. As Craig recalls, the trip which also included attending several specialty coffee conventions, was a life changing experience for many and an important measure to keep the team’s positive energy moving forward!

When Craig launched Coffee Connections in 2001 it was at a time when the roads and infrastructure were so bad there was no way that any supplies could reach the Highlands from the nearby port city of Goroka. It’s only 52 miles but FYI, his best time for that trek is 4 hours, and his worst – 16! The roads as he says are “axle-breakers.” It’s a serious, fundamental issue in Papua New Guinea and one that Craig has worked on. Locals are acutely aware of the problems it poses for their community and economy, often echoing the sentiment, “Give us a road and we’ll look after the rest.” When the roads were repaired four years ago, everyone became more active, and some would even operate small, roadside shops offering services, food or other supplies. More importantly, reliable roads provide better access to medicines and educational opportunities. But Craig can attest that it’s a constant process.

Now at 69 years old, Craig is beginning to transition into whatever comes next in life after you build a sustainable and profitable Fair Trade coffee business. Currently he sees himself working in more of a consultant capacity with the recognition that he may never fully walk from what he’s built here; he understands that his absence could jeopardize everything that he’s helped build throughout his life. Craig’s presence has always been a sort of seal of assurance for the Highland farmers who see him both as a connection to the outside world and someone who’s able to certify their work, its significance and able to explain its importance.

As for the nation of Papua New Guinea, Craig understands the challenges and difficulties of managing a traditional village society with relatively large and complex needs. Business never really ends when you’re the go-to guy! For instance, there’s no clear separation between business and after hour, and at any time of day a call for help can come in and your response to it can have wide-reaching effects. Craig earnestly speaks of his deep appreciation for Papua New Guinea, a place where the job of the green coffee maverick and social and cultural issues frequently coincide with business. At the end of the day, it matters little to tried and true Papua New Guinea advocates like Craig. Those who are closest to the people and the heart of this independent, island nation see this as one of its most endearing and defining characteristics.

Craig McConaghy is the CEO of Coffee Connections, an independent coffee consultant, the representative to the HOAC coffee growers of Papua New Guinea, and a proud partner of Vournas Coffee Trading.