+44 (0)20 7202 2620

Papua New Guinea, 40 Years Later – Kongo Coffee, HOAC & Coffee Connections

It was 1984 the last time DRWakefield ventured to Papua New Guinea for business. Our chairman, Simon Wakefield, spent a year working in the highland town of Goroka for a local exporter. Like Simon, this was my first experience of PNG. Unlike Simon, I am not 19 years old and fresh out of my first job. As you will appreciate as you continue reading, his first ever origin trip to PNG 40 years ago must have been quite the experience.

Papua New Guinea is an origin I knew very little about before I joined the DRW trade team. Sure, it pops up in the occasional Melbourne inspired espresso blend. However, in a European specialty coffee space that prides itself on traceability and storytelling, it feels somewhat underrepresented. My first true introduction was at a PNG coffee promotional event during the Rugby League World Cup in September 2022. Since then, I have been desperate to visit.

18 months on, alongside Nuno of Allpress Espresso and Ole of St Martin’s Coffee Roasters, we set off from London on a rainy evening in March. Following stops in Hong Kong and Port Moresby, we arrived at Goroka, Eastern Highlands, 42 hours later. This would be our home for the next 7 days.

All photos featured in this article were shot on film.

Simon Wakefield in Goroka, Papua New Guinea

Before delving into our adventures with our producer partners Kongo Coffee, Coffee Connections, and HOAC, I want to provide some context to smallholder coffee in PNG. I was aware that the producing regions of PNG were remote. However, quite how remote, I did not appreciate.

Until 1932, the highland regions of PNG were assumed uninhabited. Today, it is widely accepted that over a million people were living there in the early 1900s, completely isolated from the outside world. Within the highlands, people did not migrate from their land into neighboring territories. People residing in the more populated coastal regions considered the highlands area too remote and too dangerous to explore. Fast forwards 92 years to 2024, and there is still no road access from the capital of Port Moresby to any of the highland regions. The only movement of note happens by plane to a network of small regional airports.

Transport is also limited within the highlands. Until recently, there was no established tarmac road connecting the producing regions. In 2016, Chinese contractors began work on a 10-year road project, connecting the port of Lae with Hela Province in the Central Highlands. The 900km Highlands Highway is now 80% complete and has already had an enormous impact. Journey times between the major provinces have been reduced by 70%, landslides are less disruptive and driving safety has improved considerably. That said, the Highlands Highway is still the only major road in the highlands. Smaller roads that connect most coffee smallholders are still dangerously poor. Referred to as ‘bush tracks’, they can be impossible to use during wet season and are treacherous even in dry conditions. More on this to come…

Given 95% of coffee in PNG is produced by rural and remote smallholders, the above context is critical in understanding this incredible origin.

Bush track in Ocapa, Eastern Highlands

Kongo Coffee

Kongo are an independent exporter based in Simbu Province, founded and managed by Simbu local, Jerry Kapka. Established in 1990, Kongo buy parchment exclusively from smallholders within the Simbu Province and work closely with producing communities to help elevate quality. DRWakefield have been buying coffee from Kongo since 2013.

Historically, coffee quality from Simbu was considered low grade. Harsh terrain, poor road access, and a lack of coffee education meant poor cup scores. Smallholders had limited access to the market and were price takers rather than price controllers. When Jerry opened his warehouse in the 90s, his promise to the people of Simbu was a simple one. He would work with them to improve quality, and in turn, guarantee them a higher price for their coffee.

Stepping back, Jerry acknowledged that this approach was strong at first. He often had a shortage of coffee in the early days when quality didn’t meet his standards. However, after 3 decades of investment and education, Kongo now purchase 80% of the coffee produced in Simbu. Improvements have come through the installation of raised drying beds, moisture monitoring, the distribution of pulpers and education on cherry picking at optimal ripeness. Smallholder parchment is collected through a network of buying stations in Huave, Kundiawa and trusted buying partners in more rural areas. The drastically improved quality allows Kongo to pay a minimum of 20% above market rate for all the parchment they purchase, with a further 60% available in quality premiums. As a result, producers want to sell coffee to Kongo Coffee and continue to invest in quality to achieve higher prices.

Kongo Coffee buying station in the town of Kundiawa, Simbu Province

We spent 3 days in Simbu Province and the admiration for Jerry and the Kongo team was overwhelming. At every opportunity, buying partners and producers were keen to talk us through how Kongo had invested in their smallholders plots and processing equipment. We visited 1 of 7 primary schools in Simbu that had been funded by Kongo Coffee to enable the children of contributing producers to access education. Villagers told us how Kongo were always on hand to repair damaged bush tracks to ensure rural areas remain connected. Jerry had even built 3 transmitters in the province to provide phone, TV and radio signal. The strong foundations on which Kongo is built are clear to see.

All coffee that Kongo purchase ends up at their dry mill in Huave. Given they only buy parchment, 100% of the coffee exported is washed. Depending on quality, the coffee is split into 2 categories. Higher-grade parchment becomes Elimbari grade and is exclusively sun dried before milling. The rest makes up Simbu PSC (Premium Smallholder Coffee) grade. These lots are partially sun dried before being finished in 1 of 6 Guardiola’s at the mill. Both Elimbari and Simbu PSC are split into A Grade, B Grade and a combined Y Grade. On the cupping table, all coffees presented a cocoa sweetness and orange citrus acidity. Elimbari had a more complex acidity with lots of stone fruit. Simbu PSC were more sweetness forwards, with a thick, caramel-y body.

Kongo Mill in Huave, Simbu Province

Kongo’s QC manager made an interesting point at the end of our cupping session… ‘We don’t like microlots or experimental processing. It doesn’t make sense for us’. After a fascinating conversation with the wider Kongo team, it was clear why. The founding mission of Kongo was to increase quality and parchment prices for ALL smallholders in Simbu Province. Putting emphasis on individual producers, specific plots and novel processing methods could disrupt this mission. Especially given the journey at Kongo is still very much a fluid one. In a specialty coffee space that regularly demands unique microlots and granular traceability, it was refreshing to understand this perspective.

Elimbari grade is the Kongo compromise. A coffee not defined by a certain region or set of producers, but by the quality of parchment delivered. Named after the Elimbari mountain perched imposingly to the south of Kongo mill, this coffee represents just 5% of Kongo’s exports. We were fortunate enough to travel to Elimbari mountain on day 3 of our time with Kongo. Exposed limestone and tall pine trees framed the smallholder plots on the bush track towards the summit. The cooler climate at altitude encourages coffee from around the mountain to ripen later than most other areas of Simbu. Jerry mentioned that as well as being the namesake for the higher grade, some of the parchment that makes up Elimbari does come from smallholders that surround the mountain. At 2,900masl, the road stopped, and we got out the car to explore. Jerry pointed to the summit, sitting proud another 1,600 metres above us. Elimbari is one of the highest peaks of PNG and a magical site. The journey back was slightly less magical… An enormous pothole on the bush track, caused by recent flooding, snagged the front left tyre of our truck. 15 locals, 15 spades and 30 minutes later we were dug out. It served as an important reminder of the daily challenges that coffee producers face despite the beauty of the environment.

Jerry, Micky and Elaine at Elimbari mountain, Simbu Province

Coffee Connections & HOAC

Coffee Connections are an independently owned coffee exporter based in Goroka. Their focus is Fairtrade Organic coffee, sourced exclusively from the Highlands Organic Agricultural Cooperative (HOAC). HOAC are a 3,000-member coffee cooperative based in the Ocapa region of the Eastern Highlands established in 1981. Their community mill is in the small village of Purosa, in the heart of Ocapa. Today, the cooperative is exclusively Fairtrade Organic with the entire production sold to Coffee Connections. DRWakefield have been buying from HOAC since the 1980’s.

Local market in Goroka, Eastern Highlands

We began our 2 days with Coffee Connections and HOAC in the town of Goroka. Accompanied by Binn and Ronny, we took a tour of the Coffee Connections warehouse on the coffee road that runs adjacent to the airport runway. This was followed by a quick visit to the Coffee Connections mill on the outskirts of town. They are 1 of 2 Fairtrade Organic exporters in PNG and demand for certified coffees is increasing. Consequently, work began in November 2023 on a new space up the road from their existing warehouse. At 650sqm, the new site will become the largest mill in Goroka when fully operational in summer 2025.

Prior to our arrival in PNG, there was talk of a visit to HOAC in the rural Ocapa region. However, given the remoteness of the cooperative, we had been told that plans would have to be flexible. Bad weather would make driving impossible. Fog would make flying impossible. And without representatives from HOAC in town, there would be nobody to accompany us. Following our tour of the Coffee Connections facility in the morning, Binn dropped us back at our hotel and told us he would be in touch. At 1340, we received a text. This is copy and pasted from WhatsApp: ‘Be ready please at 1400. And please bring a bag to stay the night. It is too muddy to drive back today. We have booked you at a missionary friend house in Awande village near Purosa. You will be with some HOAC members and our guy Mitchell’.

Mitchell was the logistics manager for Coffee Connections. The HOAC members were Ricky (secretary), Henze (vice secretary) and David (projects manager). We packed our things in the 20 minutes provided, ready for the ride to Ocapa. It is at this point that the context at the beginning of this article comes in handy. After travelling 1 hour east along the Highlands Highway, we turned off the tarmac road and onto the bush track. Google maps said 52km to Awande. The journey took 6 hours. My words would not do the drive justice. Fortunately, Ole put together this short video for the first part of the journey. The final 2 hours were completed in darkness and did not make the edit.

Our room in Awande, Eastern Highlands

6 breakdows later, we arrived at the missionary house in Awande in complete darkness. Ricky and Henze cooked up a feast of chicken and sweet potato on a generator powered hob in the dark and off to bed we went. At 0530, we were woken by the sound of birdsong as light poured in through the windows of our room. We jumped back in the trucks and headed off to the mill in Purosa, with a few stops on the way.

Awande village itself was established by an American missionary community, and was now run by Father Joshua, a 7 Day Evangelist Christian from the native tribal community. It was more developed than surrounding villages. Structures were typically metal clad instead of thatch. Small generators provided lighting and electricity in the evening. The focus in Awande wasn’t agricultural, but religious.

Our second stop was at Keefu Village. Keefu was far more typical. Coffee was the dominant crop, intercropped with native shade trees, bananas, and avocado trees. We spoke with a smallholder from Keefu called Peter. He informed us that the average plot would be somewhere between 0.2 – 0.5ha and it is common for farmers to have multiple plots. The average yield in the village was ~ 300kg/hectare and the harvest runs from April – July. Ripe cherry is sorted before being pulped on a community pulper supplied by HOAC. Coffee is then dried for 6-8 days in humid conditions or 3-4 days in dry hot sun before being collected and taken to the mill in Purosa. There are 3 HOAC collection stations across Ocapa where parchment is swapped for cash based on weight.

Coffee in Keefu Village, Eastern Highlands

A few HOAC members owned ‘plantations’ instead of garden plots. Our final stop was at Evingori plantation, owned by the HOAC secretary, Ricky. Coffee was still intercropped throughout the 41 hectares, but there a higher density of coffee than the smallholder plots in Keefu. Ricky identified different species across the plantation as Typica, Bourbon, Arusha, Mundo Novo and Catimor. He had a 3-year pruning schedule and targeted 600kg/hectare yield. Ricky also had an epic customised pulper… the crank arm had been replaced with a small diesel engine and belt drive to reduce labour. Genius!

We arrived at the Purosa dry mill at 1100. With a 6-hour drive ahead of us back to Goroka, the HOAC team were eager to show us round briskly to ensure we got home before nightfall. ‘The mill in the sky’, as nicknamed by Coffee Connections, was something to behold. Sitting proud in the middle of the plot was a generator to power the mill. Behind the generator was a seedling nursery. The wooden mill was basic but immaculately kept. When parchment arrives, it is sent straight to the wood fired drier known as ‘Asaro’. The circular pit is capable of drying 1mt in 5 hours and is only powered up when full. Once out the drier, the coffee moves to 1 of 3 hoppers, each of which hold 3mt. The coffee is rested for 48 hours to regulate the temperature. From the hopper, parchment is passed through the huller and polisher before being screen graded into 3 categories defined as AA, AX and Y. Each has its own silo where the coffee sits until bagging. The coffee is then sent to Goroka via the treacherous bush track for a second grading before export.

Generator and Asaro at Purosa Mill, Eastern Highlands

Let’s do some math… In wet conditions, 600kg of coffee can be transported by land cruiser from Purosa to Goroka on the bush track. In dry season, this increases to 2,700kg by truck. Each journey takes 6 hours and HOAC produces ~ 30,000 bags of green coffee per annum. In a best-case scenario, with every journey to Goroka going by truck with 2,700kg of green coffee on board, the return journey would have to be made 667 times. That’s 8,000 hours of bush track travel. And the worst-case? 3,000 return journeys amounting to 36,000 hours of travel.

HOAC organise an annual AGM in Goroka, attended by 120 farmers that represent the group, to discuss these kinds of issues. Road quality is always top of the agenda, but logistically too difficult to fix without government aid. This year, cooperative funds will be spent on aluminium cladding for the Purosa mill and a network of raised beds for smallholders to be distributed across Ocapa region.

Ricky, Henze, David & Nuno in Purosa, Eastern Highlands

The hurdles facing smallholders in Papua New Guinea are unlike any other origin I have experienced. This report doesn’t even touch upon issues of tribal conflict and land ownership. It doesn’t engage with the problems of climate change that are causing havoc with harvest schedules. It doesn’t talk about the monopolies of big business. Over 70% of coffee exports in PNG are controlled by 4 multinationals that enable them to control parchment prices across the country. Despite being 2 of the biggest independent exporters, Kongo Coffee and Coffee Connections account for less than 10% of the coffee that leaves the country.

As you can probably tell, I could talk about PNG for days. This article is already way over the word limit for our trip reports, but it felt remiss to leave any of the above information out. Despite the challenges, the week we spent with Kongo Coffee, Coffee Connections and HOAC was truly breathtaking. The coffee was tasty. The people were captivating. And the potential for coffee from PNG is huge. Especially given the two partners we are so fortunate to work with.

I want to finish on words from Nuno and Ole. I asked them both to sum up the trip in just one sentence. Nuno listened…

“This was an extremely valuable trip to a coffee growing region unlike any other – despite all the challenges, the coffee PNG produces is incredible”

Ole didn’t…

“The word unforgettable gets used a lot nowadays and has become a bit of a throwaway term. I can wholeheartedly say that our trip to Papua New Guinea was unforgettable, and the memories will stay with me forever.

We witnessed unbelievable scenery, ate the freshest fruit, experienced PNG’s legendary ‘roads’ and naturally, drank lots of excellent coffee. But my everlasting memory of Papua New Guinea will be the people. The perseverance, energy, drive, dedication and passion they have for growing coffee, despite all the challenges they face, will forever be inspiring.

Never again will I take my morning cup of PNG coffee for granted. The country, and more importantly its people, will always hold a special place in my heart.” 

Ole and Squad in Goroka Town, Eastern Highlands Province

Devastating landslides have hit the Enga Province of Papua New Guinea in the last few weeks. Everyone at DRWakefield wants to take this opportunity to send our most heartfelt wishes and sympathies to all the communities affected.

Ole, Nuno & Jack at Elimbari