By MALUM NALU
ZIMAMA village chief Joe Intap Biriring is an excited man as he shows us around his cocoa garden in the Markham Valley of Morobe.
Excited because the new cocoa projects launched by the PNG Cocoa Board today, including the Marape Government’s Price Support Programme – in which a kilogram of wet beans fetches K3 – will put in more money into the pockets of his villagers and help bring about development.
It’s the afternoon of Friday, Sept 3, 2021, here at this beautiful village along the banks of the mighty Markham River.
Most of the guests, including senior PNG Cocoa Board officials and Markham MP and Deputy Speaker Koni Iguan, have left after launching of the projects.
To get to Zimama, which has some of the most-fertile land in the valley, is a drive of 20km from the main Highlands Highway at Leron Plains.
The other major project launched today is the World Trade Organisation (WTO) Standards and Trade Development Facility (STDF), an international project which aims to increase financial returns, yields, quality/safety and market access for smallholder cocoa growers and grower groups.
The project aims to ensure increased competitiveness and sustainability of Papua New Guinea’s cocoa industry in terms of consistent supply of high-quality safe cocoa from smallholder-driven value chain, resulting in sales to premium markets, and positive impacts on the livelihoods of rural households directly benefiting from the project.
“ When farmers see that prices are good, it automatically makes them go back to their gardens.”
It is envisaged that the long-term success of the STDF project will be an increase in exports of high-quality cocoa. The industry currently faces problems with low and stagnant yields, inconsistent quality and risks associated with contamination due to defective driers. After the cocoa fermentation process, cocoa beans are then dried using a combination of firewood and natural sunlight to bring it to the desired quality. The drier contains a kiln pipe made of mild steel which acts as a conduit to transfer heat to the cocoa beans on the drier bed during the drying process. However, this material is not durable enough and deteriorates within a few years, allowing smoke to come into contact with cocoa beans resulting in smoke taint.
This project will support the cocoa industry and contribute positively to the goals set out in the Cocoa Industry Strategic Plan 2016-2025 by supporting improvements to food safety and quality management in the cocoa value chain in order to promote cocoa exports that benefit farmers in rural communities and reduce poverty.
The Markham Valley is now the leading cocoa producer in the whole of Morobe.
It is a multi-million-kina industry which is now the main source of income for Markham villagers, so much so, that Chief Biriring describes it as an “ATM”.
“Every two weeks, we have money, the cocoa tree is just like an ATM,” he says
The cocoa from here is rated very highly by exporters and international chocolate houses.
Chief Biriring tells us that cocoa was first introduced here in 2013 and has since taken off when people saw for themselves the money that could be made.
“We started off with a nursery and 10,000-hectares of land,” he says.
“I distributed 20,000 seedlings to 70 farmers in Zimama.
“This eventually grew up to 32,000ha, however, we did not have the resources to manage this so we scaled down to 6,000ha.
“In 2016, 2017 and 2018, I saw that cocoa production was increasing and built a fermentary in the village.
“I am also thankful that PNG Cocoa Board CEO, Boto Gaupu, has seen the huge potential in Zimama and has introduced the Marape Government’s Price Support Programme as well as the STDF.”
PNG Cocoa Board acting CEO, Tony Vigil, says it is very happy to work with the people of Zimama in implementing the Marape Government’s Price Support Programme and the STDF.
“The Price Support Programme is a very good initiative of the Marape Government,” he adds
“When farmers see that prices are good, it automatically makes them go back to their gardens.
“We have noted a big increase in production because of this programme.
“We want the Marape Government to continue with its Price Support Programme as it is targeted at rural villagers, who are always at the lower end of the market chain.
“The Marape Government has made a very good decision to reward rural farmers for their hard work.”
The other game changer for the Markham Valley cocoa industry is the STDF.
“We have identified two provinces to implement the STDF project, Morobe and East New Britain, with Markham being the chosen district of Morobe,” Vigil elaborates.
“The main idea of the STDF project is to improve quality, particularly to overcome this problem of smoke taint.
“We are still trialing it and we look forward to rolling it out to other cocoa-growing areas of PNG.
“The STDF comes under the WTO, which has its headquarters in Geneva, and who came in with this assistance after a submission from the PNG Cocoa Board.
“The total value of the project is about US$800,000, which is equivalent to K2.9 million.
“Today is a milestone for us, as we are reporting back to Geneva, on the project we are launching today at Zimama.
“There are other STDF projects to be rolled out in East New Britain, and two more here in the Markham Valley.”
Markham MP Iguan says the cocoa industry in the valley is greatly under-rated.
He assured PNG Cocoa Board of his district development authority’s (DDA) assistance in setting up an office and a house for an extension officer in the Markham Valley.
The Markham DDA has also assisted in improving road access to Zimama.
“Markham is currently topping Morobe (in cocoa production), but if we do things better, Markham will top PNG,” Iguan says.
“People in the valley are growing cocoa everywhere, however, we are not taking stock of this.
“Markham Valley has the potential to increase cocoa production of PNG and put us on the world map.
“I appeal to my people in Markham: We have huge tracts of land, so put aside land issues, and use it to grow cocoa.”
- Malum Nalu works with the Office of the Prime Minister