By LEO WAFIWA
JOSEPH Laka doesn’t know his date of birth. His estimation is that he is between 59 and 65 years old.
He originates from Central Wabag in Enga and is married with three children aged 25, 12 and seven years.
When Joseph was a young man he wanted to be adventurous and travelled the stretch of the Okuk Highway by PMV to many parts of the highlands.
In 1973 he ended up in the popular Avi Block at Anglimp in Jiwaka, then part of Western Highlands. In 2000 Joseph paid for a two hectare portion of land and a little later built a house kunai of 10×10 meters in length and width. The house has been his home for the last 17 years. All his three children grew up in the traditional house, built a few inches above the ground.
It was a blessing that the land already had close to 2,000 coffee trees planted in the 1970s by officers working for the then Department of Primary Industry (now Department of Agriculture & Livestock).
Like many other farmers, Joseph didn’t take coffee seriously. As cherry selling was common in Jiwaka and Western Highlands, he would occasionally pick a few to sell to roadside buyers, just to fulfil some social or customary obligations like bride price payments and helping wantoks to settle court fines or disputes.
In 2014 some 432 farmers in Western Highlands and Jiwaka joined Timbuka Coffee Ltd under call 2 to take part in Coffee Industry Corporation’s Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project (CIC-PPAP).
Of these farmers, 180 were settlers at Avi Block. Joseph was among these growers who embraced the opportunity by joining the coffee rehabilitation project to improve his garden.
The project is tasked to revitalize farmers’ rundown coffee gardens, set up nurseries for infilling and implement improved post-harvest practices in cluster groups.
Timbuka, as the lead partner, also facilitated farmer training in selected topics like in business management skills, conduct farm book/record keeping, and carry out HIV/AIDS and gender equality training with farmers and their families.
Under the project’s tool subsidy program, Joseph and other participating farmers received basic farming tools like bush knives, secateurs, bow saws, spades, herbicides and few knapsack sprayers and coffee hand pulpers after paying an equity fee of 10 per cent. A farmer would pay over K1,000 for all these tools.
“I didn’t have that kind of money and it was a relief. Also, I didn’t see this kind of help and thought this must be a serious project to help us,” Joseph said in Tok Pisin.
Joseph was amazed with the professional training conducted by extension officers engaged by Timbuka Coffee who physically visited farmers’ gardens and schooled them on best practices. It was the first time for Joseph to learn the process of coffee harvesting, processing and quality improvement, and coffee marketing. The trainings were provided in group sessions providing the prospects for cross-learning which really helped Joseph to appreciate his role as a coffee farmer.
After the training sessions Joseph began his first pruning of 2000-plus coffee trees in his block that were about 50 years old.
“Tools are every farmers’ survival kits. They actually encouraged me to work in my coffee garden.”
Three years on and the trees started to bear many cherries of bigger size. Though Joseph was excited to see some changes including the number of drums he sold, getting a better price for his hard work was still a setback.
A drum holds a capacity of 15 litres and 15kg of cherries.
“The highest roadside selling price I got last harvest season was K15 per drum and got K1,500 in total.”
This is 100 drums altogether which is equivalent to 1500kg of cherries from a two hectare coffee garden. According to CIC records, a two hectare garden applying conventional practices would produce 3340kg of cherries.
“I think my latest cherry bean production is between 10 and 15 drums more after PPAP intervention in 2014.
“But the problem here is we continue to have few road buyers so didn’t have much chance to bargain for a better price.”
Nevertheless, Joseph participated actively in the project. He felt there was more to learn and attended three trainings on HIV/AIDS awareness, gender equality and women empowerment, and financial literacy.
The sessions were geared towards developing growers the capacity to plan and manage their coffee earnings. Again, it was his first to participate in such trainings.
The turning point for Joseph was when he sat in the financial literacy training. Joseph likes his beer so saving some money for the rainy days or the future was not easy.
“The training opened up my mind to start making some serious thinking. I began to realize my strengths and weaknesses.
“What bothered me was the fact that I was going down age-wise and the thoughts of living in the same old kunai house continued to haunt me.
“I realized that I had to put some money aside for a permanent home.”
Another blessing for Joseph was the fact that former local MP had already established a wokabaut sawmill for the community at Avi Block using funds from the District Support Improvement Program (DSIP).
“I took advantage of this sawmill and cut my own trees for timber which was a huge saving for me.
“The only materials I bought over time with the little earnings from my improved garden and other means were roofing irons, v-crimps, louver blades, fly wires, nails and some paints.”
He said the overall cost of building the house was around K25,000 only, an investment which took just over three years.
Only this year Joseph completed the new four-bedroom permanent home just at the back of his old kunai setting. Electricity is available at the Avi Block so Joseph also bought some household items like a TV screen.
“Here it is. I’m looking forward to move in with my family,” he said calmly while climbing the steps to show me the interior of his new home.
Coffee is a seasonal crop so Joseph is also raising some pigs to supplement his income, but earnings from coffee helps with his piggery and other integrated farming activities.
The challenge now is for Joseph to continuously look after his coffee garden, but a change from cherry selling to parchment coffee or green bean would return a higher price for his labour.
Timbuka Coffee Ltd is operating as a service provider and cannot process and export coffee. Therefore CIC-PPAP and Timbuka Coffee Ltd have successfully helped the farmers to set up three formally registered cooperatives, one is Avi Settlers Cooperative. This is where the project is extending its support to organize group marketing under up-scaling.
The CIC-PPAP field technical officer Steven Tevo and CIC officers at Panga substation have been working closely with the Avi Block farmers.
“The farmers are very confident to realize this dream and our job is to help facilitate that starting with best practices in coffee gardens for quality yield,” says Mr Tevo.
“The sustainability of this project is important. We want to see as many farmers continue to see coffee as a business without us having to continuously reminding them. We’re confident to get there,” adds Mr Pilon, CIC-PPAP Component 2 Coordinator for upper highlands projects.
Project Manager Potaisa Hombunaka explains the project design was initially focused on production, but only recently in 2015 has shifted attention to quality aspects of coffee and group marketing.
“With the training of Q-graders and setting up of roasting and cupping facilities at CIC’s Panga Western Highlands substation, Goroka, Aiyura and Lae, stakeholder farmers can get their coffee tasted by qualified Q-graders so they know the quality of their coffee.
“This will help farmers to get to a bargaining position to market their coffees. We are starting from ground zero and building capacities at all levels to address marketing,” says Mr Hombunaka.
The coffee rehabilitation effort is a Coffee Industry Corporation project through the Department of Agriculture & Livestock. It is financed by a loan facility from World Bank, IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) with support funding from PNG Government.
- The author is Information & Communications Officer for Coffee Industry Corporation.