June 19, 2019 6 min read
Head Roaster/Green Buyer, Matt Hampton heads to PNG to visit Jerry Kapka and his operation.
We love PNG.
It’s always been that way, even for Joe, Stan and I as individuals before we came together to start Rumble. While PNG’s proximity to Australia and potential for outstanding beans will always keep us trying and buying from this beautiful country, it’s also important to us that we understand - first-hand - the challenges faced by PNG farmers and their communities.
Why? Because at Rumble, we believe that awareness and communication is the first and most important step in ensuring transparency and a better industry for all.
Interestingly, coffee was planted in PNG well over 100 years ago but it took a long time for the industry to establish, grow and sustain. While it’s not as well-known at its closest coffee growing neighbour, Indonesia, we certainly think it should be!
The reasons why are pretty fascinating. Firstly, PNG has often been regarded as a country that’s difficult to work with due to its harsh terrain. In the past, we’ve experienced delays in delivery due to roads being washed out, a lack of trucks available to get the coffee to port, and problems getting coffee loaded on to ships. Secondly, and in slightly stranger circumstances, we’ve sometimes been sent coffee samples that were absolutely amazing, but when we tried to order the coffee proper, the person who sent the samples was, for whatever reason, no longer in the business.
Coffee growing can be tough, of course, but with our focus firmly on transparency and building wonderful relationships with our growers, we’re working as hard as we can to change that.
This was to be my first trip to PNG as well as our first as Rumble. Having previously been constrained by time and resources, we couldn’t wait to get started building our face-to-face relationships with the community we’d been working with for just on 18 months via the support of our import partner.
Coffee from PNG is, historically, very cheap, mainly due to inconsistent quality and supply. I’d also heard that a major problem here with coffee growing here is that most of the crops are getting very old (30 years+ on average!) without being replanted. As a result, yield is rapidly decreasing. It takes a new plant around three years to start producing quality cherries and they’ll continue to do so for five or so years before the yield starts to decline.
In larger operations, producers will maintain a detailed program of plant rotation. Smaller farms, however, face the challenge of justifying the replacement of crops when it takes years for the new plants to mature. While we’re working to understand if supporting the development of a plant nursery might help PNG coffee farmers to feel more confident replacing and rotating their plants, there’s still a lot more conversation to be had.
But, for now...
I visited just before the main harvest to meet producer, Jerry Kapka. Jerry started his coffee growing operation, Kongo in the early 1990s. He was working as a teacher in Simbu province and, as life would have it, saw the opportunity to export coffee. He took the lease on an old factory, got his export license and attempted to sell coffee from his local area. Due to his hard work, passion and persistence, Jerry has now become one of the largest locally owned exporters in PNG.
At Rumble, we’re proud to make our relationships with producers a huge priority which in turn allows us to grow and develop as a business with transparency - and the needs and interests of our producers - at our core. Above all else, I just couldn’t wait to meet Jerry and experience his practice and methods for myself.
I landed in Mount Hagen after our first flight was turned back due to bad weather. We were picked up by Jerry (a total joy) and drove together, bound for Simbu, through the Western and Eastern Highlands. I’d always known that the roads in PNG are notorious for being rough but this trip was an eye-opener. A 60km drive (like that from the airport to Simbu) normally takes upwards of 2 hours. As you could imagine, the trusty, old Land Cruiser is the only way to get around.
As we stopped off at a couple of collection stations and had the opportunity to witness Jerry in action, it was obvious that he was very well respected. As he later revealed, some members of the community had been asking him to become a politician, but as he assured as, he’s certain he can do more for the community by running his business!
The Kongo collection points are set up to buy parchment coffee from local growers. As you can learn more about in our 2018 Transparency Report, most families in PNG grow coffee in small batches alongside other crops on their farms. Regardless, coffee is normally the only crop they receive money for; naturally, the way in which the coffee industry is structured and supported becomes a central concern in considering the wellbeing of growers, their families and their communities.
Jerry, for example, has been paying well above the market price for his coffee and only buys parchment from the collection points where prices are clearly displayed and feedback re: the coffee’s quality and grading is offered to farmers upon collection. Overall, this means that local growers are receiving more money for their coffee.
Something else that makes Jerry’s operation interesting to us is that he insists on paying higher amounts for better quality coffee. Many other buyers in PNG weigh either the parchment or cherry and pay on weight alone. In contrast, Jerry has trained his staff to identify - and process separately - the higher quality product. This means not only that farmers end up with more money for produce but that incentive is provided to growers and accurate documentation kept of farmers’ crop quality and output. A win for all!
When we visited the main factory, Jerry was keen to show off his latest purchase: an optical sorter. With an optical sorter, Jerry is able to grade the coffee to a much higher degree of accuracy, and can achieve higher prices for growers as a result. Previously, all sorting was all done by hand and Jerry had been finding it hard to find people to undertake such onerous manual work. Jerry reported that he’d since felt a huge change in productivity and quality since making the big purchase.
As for us? We’ve really been noticing the difference the machine has made to the last couple of arrivals of Simbu, which you too can experience as part of our beautiful Shadow Boxer Blend!
The morning I was to leave offered a brief window of time to consider my learnings from the last few days.
Overall, I’ve been so impressed by Jerry and work he has done, and continues to do. Listening to him talk so passionately about the coffee and the community really helped me realise that we’ve made the right decision at Rumble to continue to work alongside him.
To this end, Jerry donates profits from Kongo coffee to his own foundation which he began in 2016. Set up to fund worthy projects in Chuave and the Simbu province, the foundation has helped develop schools, hospitals, and women’s and youth groups.
Taking all of this into account, it became clear to me that Jerry is a true, community-minded business owner, and exactly the type of person we want to be dealing with at Rumble. Having the opportunity to come to this understanding is, in a nutshell, is why we insist on making regular visits to our growers.
From another angle, while I’ve always thought PNG coffee has great potential, I’ve also wondered in equal measure why it’s not known as one of the more superior regions for growth. Of course, one of the real benefits of origin travel is discovering first-hand the challenges being faced by producers. It’s by doing this that we not only learn what’s being done in the community to overcome these challenge, but how we might chip in - as roasters - to help move these goals along. By observing the PNG industry on the ground, it’s become clear that it’s infrastructure holding the country back from productivity. Years of mismanagement by government (not to mention farmers’ struggles against incredibly difficult terrain) is an obvious problem.
But you know what? The locals persevere against all odds. It’s truly inspiring. Take, for example, a recent shipment’s getting through to the boats despite a landslide encountered on the way! By making these trips, we ensure the first step in full transparency: awareness. Awareness of community struggles, awareness of community wins, awareness of what we can do to help the industry not only survive, but really thrive.
It’s a unique place, PNG. But the more we know, the better equipped we’ll be to offer our ongoing support to the producers of our beautiful coffees.