Kokako: back to the origin

15 September 2015

In late August Mike Murphy, MD of Kokako, set off to Papua New Guinea to trace the origins of Kokako’s coffee and check up on the progress of Fairtrade initiatives.

On Sunday 16 August I set off to Papua New Guinea with our Quality Control expert Hannah Cho. This was my second visit to Papua New Guinea (PNG) – in April 2013 I visited six different Fairtrade cooperatives as well as the Coffee Industry Corporation of PNG. This visit was much more targeted, as our plan was to spend more time with the Highlands Organics Agriculture Cooperative (HOAC) at their main base of Purosa, in the Okapa District of the Eastern Highlands.

Our goals were to forge greater links with our coffee growers, identify opportunities to source micro-lot coffees, teach and support the farmers about the quality expectation of Kokako and our customers, plot the journey of our coffee from crop to cup (including visits to the processors and exporters in Goroka, the main city in PNG that processes coffee) and to share stories of how Fairtrade is positively impacting the people who grow our coffee.

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Up into the Highlands

After three flights we landed in Goroka, in the Eastern Highlands of PNG. Goroka has a population of around 6000 and is the main feeder town for the surrounding district, so has a high number of visitors from surrounding coffee growing regions who come to drop off coffee at one of the many coffee exporters located next to the main airstrip. We were travelling in a convoy of three Toyota Landcruiser 70 Series vehicles – all highly capable of negotiating the unpredictable Highland roads.

We were hosted by Daniel Kinne, Chairman of HOAC, and some of his key team members including Robert (Treasurer of HOAC), Sewege (Quality Control and Special Projects), and Apisa Eno, as well as a number of other key HOAC members who joined us along the way. We were accompanied by Will Valverde, Sandra Mendez, Honour Stewart and Gabriel Iso of Fairtrade, Henrik Rylev from green bean importers John Burton Limited, as well as Giro Maurici (who runs a highly successful business in Melbourne that serves Fairtrade coffee) and photographer Ness who has been based in PNG for the past eight years.

We stocked up at the Goroka market with a range of amazingly fresh local produce and strapped the luggage into the back tray of Daniel’s Landcruiser. From the main highway heading South East out of Goroka we turned off into the Okapa District and headed up a windy road which soon became gravel and mud. Daniel had arranged a police escort for this stretch of the road. This was a precaution only and we felt safe and secure during the whole trip. The police escort left us as we drove further up into the highlands closer to Purosa.

One of the primary purposes of our trip was to encourage farmers to record and identify their own mico-lots. Typically with both small-holder and cooperative grown coffee, harvests are all mixed together from different farmers. This doesn’t allow for any particular farmer’s coffee to be evaluated on its own merits and as micro-lot coffee continues to be in high demand from specialty coffee companies around the world this is something that we are keen to encourage. Word has got through in advance of our visit as the first area we visit within the HOAC region is Cluster 6, where five farmers have prepared parchment samples, each tagged with their own unique identification number, for us to see.

Further on in Yasubi, I meet Moses for the second time after first meeting him here in 2013. Moses shows us the community water station that was funded by Fairtrade premiums and explains how this has become a well used asset for the people in this community. 

Kokako 2

Further up the winding road we visit one of the local schools at South Fore, part of the Okapa District. When I first visited in April 2013 I was shown two new classrooms and the improvements they have provided over what was a very run down and dusty classroom with no proper floor. I noted that the old classroom had been demolished and a third classroom built – all using funds collected from the HOAC Fairtrade premiums. We speak with Steven, one of four local teachers at this school, and he tells us about facets of the curriculum that he is focused on – primarily environmental awareness, culture and community.

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We hit the 2000 metre above sea level mark which is verging on being in the clouds before descending back down into the Purosa Valley which sits at an altitude of around 1600 metres. Will, from Fairtrade, took his altimeter on the trip which comes in handy as it allows us to plot the altitude of all of the different coffee growing clusters within the HOAC group.

On arrival in the main village of Purosa, and after a six hour journey, we are greeted by a large welcome banner, followed by a moving and very humbling welcome from the local people dressed in tribal attire adorned with feathers, drums, bows and arrows. Daniel’s father, Papa James Kinne kindly provided his home to us. We appreciated the effort the cooperative went to  in accommodating us – not only did they paint the interior, but they also milled some timber and crafted our beds for the stay.  

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Field visits

Highlands Organics Agriculture Cooperative is a key trading partner for Kokako – in the last year alone we’ve purchased over 22 tonnes of their coffee for use in our Aotea blend. Hannah and I are focused on understanding the quality processes and systems the farmers are using but also in determining how the cooperative is educating farmers on best practice. We visited the Purosa Model Garden, used as a training garden for members of the cooperative. Here we met Kenneth Soga, a very clued up member of HOAC who is an extension officer for HOAC – he runs the model garden and the coffee nursery. Kenneth explains that the model garden has four main varietals of coffee plant – Typica, Mundo novo, Arusha and Blue Mountain.

The owner of the model garden is Eliza Yako (below, with his wife). During harvest time Eliza is joined by extended family to harvest the coffee cherries. Most coffee grown here and across the HOAC area has good shading from the Casuavira tree which sits up to 15 metres above each coffee tree and lets in the right amount of light and shade. Many of the farmers are planting banana trees and other food crops around their coffee trees. Peanuts are also used by some farmers to control weed growth and as a handy snack at harvest time.

Cluster 8 is a collective of farmers at Urai Coffee Cooperative Society. They produce around 50 tonnes of parchment per year and sell this to HOAC. The road – partly funded by previous Fairtrade premiums – stops here and the terrain is steep and mountainous. Cluster 8 sits at 1360 metres above sea level and is led by Andrew Saropo. 

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Mechanical dryer and grader at Purosa

After visiting a number of coffee farms we returned to the main village at Purosa where Daniel showed us their Mechanical Dryer. Power is supplied by an onsite diesel generator and they use this to construct a larger wood-fired furnace which provides the warm air required for the Asaro Dryer. Bags of parchment (green coffee that’s been pulped but still has a hard casing around it) weigh in at around 50 to 60kg each. The mechanical dryer can accommodate 50 bags of parchment which will take two to six hours to dry depending on how well they have been sun-dried by the farmers before packing into white parchment bags.  

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The first ever roast at Purosa

Daniel had visited us in New Zealand only a few months earlier for Fairtrade fortnight. During his trip we presented him with a small electric sample roaster, grinder and cupping gear so that he could take this back to the village and test the various farmers’ coffees. Daniel had not even opened the large suitcase we gave him, but instead waited for us to arrive so we could roast the first sample with him. I set up the roaster in one of the rooms at Papa Kinne’s house, in what could only be described as one of the most suitable wood-panelled roasting and cupping rooms on the planet. The room was high on a hill overlooking the village and had good natural light.

Hannah and I roasted the first test batch of beans on our first evening. We had used green beans from Papa Kinne’s own plantation but after roasting we realised that they had not been dried for long enough, the high moisture content therefore affecting our roast profile and rendering this first test batch undrinkable. What followed was quite remarkable – many of the farmers we had met in the previous days walked several hours to Papa Kinne’s house with their test samples. They laid their samples out on the grass in the sun before placing them in upcycled rice bags and bringing them in for Hannah to roast. Between us we roasted 12 samples (micro-lots) from a variety of locations around HOAC. We used the hot air roaster, then tagged each of them with the roasting date, roast profile, altitude, farmer name and growing region.

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As Hannah roasted I gave Daniel, Papa Kinne, Robert and Apisa a lesson in how to use an Aeropress. Our Head roaster, Chris Unkovich, had prepared samples of HOAC coffee roasted back at our Auckland roastery and so I was able to prepare their own coffee onsite at Purosa for them to enjoy. We left the Aeropress, some Hario scales and a smaller electric and hand grinder at Papa Kinne’s house for them to use as a gift from Kokako.

The first ever coffee cupping at Purosa

Cupping is our industry standard way of evaluating quality and consistency in the cup. We use it to score each coffee using a scale out of 100 maximum points and will often use a specific flavour and aroma chart to refer to in assessing coffee characteristics. Before we held our cupping we invited all of the farmers into the cupping room we had created in three groups. Hannah and I explained the roasting process and why we cup coffee before inviting each farmer up to the cupping table. It was an extremely humbling experience – most of these farmers had never tasted their own coffee and none had ever participated in a formal coffee cupping like this.

Once the farmers left it was starting to get dark so we pushed on with our cupping where we were joined by other members of the group. The stand out coffees were from Cluster 6 (Ke-Efu region) – good body with tropical fruit notes, Cluster 5 (Emasa Region) – more complex with tropical fruit and dark chocolate, Cluster 7 (Iwaki region) – distinctive body with a malt chocolate finish and both were Daniel and his father Papa Kinne’s coffees, which we are planning to bring to New Zealand as micro-lots.

Coffee connections

We then travelled back to Goroka. This time the journey was quicker (four hours) and on our arrival we met with Henry Abe of Coffee Connections. They play an important role in the custody chain of the coffee as the coffee that comes in from HOAC (they have two of their own trucks) will either be already processed into green beans or still in parchment form. Coffee Connections has strong links to international markets and sells the HOAC coffee onto importers such as John Burton Limited, one of the largest green bean importers in New Zealand.

Henry explained to us that there has been a big drop in the production of coffee across PNG. As a country they have gone from exporting a bumper 1.25 million bags in 2011 down to just 750,000 in the last year. Henry attributes this to under-investment in crop and plant regeneration amongst predominantly small-holder farmers outside of the HOAC region as well as climate change. During our visit we noticed how dry it was and we drove through a number of scrub fires that back home would have been alarming, but none of the farmers seemed to be concerned about.

Hannah and I held another cupping at Coffee Connections where we presented Daniel and the HOAC team with the official SCAA cupping book and ran through the protocols for best practice cupping techniques. We were impressed with the good palates in the cupping room.

A strong relationship

Concluding the trip, we were really happy that we had exceeded the objectives of our visit. We gained a far greater understanding of the opportunities and challenges of growing coffee in this remote part of PNG and documented in detail HOAC’s systems and processes to ensure quality in the cup. We were also able to impart our knowledge and experience of roasting and cupping, and speak directly to coffee farmers around industry trends, the focus on micro-lots, and the importance of transparency in the supply chain. They were eager to learn, and we came away satisfied that they’ll put our recommendations into practice, which will have a positive flow on impact for the cooperative. It was very hard to say goodbye, as we’ve forged lasting friendships with Daniel and the people of HOAC. Six days was not long enough – we’re already planning our return visit for 2016 when we’ll focus more intensely on helping HOAC and their farmers to get the best out of their coffee.

Kokako 8

Mike Murphy is the Managing Director of Kokako Organic Coffee Roasters and was in Papua New Guina during August 2015. You can follow @kokakoorganic and @hoacorganic on Instagram 

This story original appeared in the Kokako Chronicle. Photo credit to the rights owner.