Most coffee origin stories are often about how a group of people came in contact with coffee. Coffee was either discovered as a native plant, brought by foreigners, or travelers ventured out and brought it back. Then, you read about how they plant, grow, and process coffee. Depending on the country, the challenges are different. In Ethiopia, traceability is a challenge; in Tanzania, farmers contend with elephants; in Latin America, the challenge may be natural disasters. But Papua New Guinea takes the challenges of growing and selling coffee to a whole new level. This blog may not totally be about how Papua New Guinea produces coffee, but why it's hard to get their coffee into the hands of the American coffee drinker. Knowing these challenges and how difficult it is to get Papua New Guinea coffee, we're pretty excited about being able to offer it for the first time. Get it while you can. It's so good that it quickly became a shop favorite.
Coffee production got a late start in Papua New Guinea compared to other parts of the world. Sometime between 1926 and 1927, Jamaican Blue Mountain Coffee seeds were planted. Since that time, the coffee industry has been present but has never been able to thrive. At its peak in 1998, coffee accounted for 38% of exports but then declined again.
Today, in Papua New Guinea, coffee is grown in small amounts and on small farms referred to as gardens. These gardens are very small compared to the more modern coffee farm, and coffee is most likely not the only crop they grow because they survive on their agriculture. They have to grow more than just coffee if they're going to survive. Farmers pick the cherries and sell them directly to mills in cherry form. There are some larger estates and mills, and for the most part, they do a wet process, but it's still hard to get detailed information on the overall coffee practices. It's most likely when you enjoy a cup of coffee from Papua New Guinea, it's a blend of coffee from many different farms. Being able to provide coffee from Papua New Guinea most likely means that mills are getting more selective about the cherries they buy and might even be refining their processes. Considering that 2%of the country's landscape is suitable for commercial agriculture, and forest makes up 63% of Papua New Guinea, it isn't hard to see that coffee is not a significant export. But why us that? The elevation and climate are quite good for growing coffee. Today the main problem is poor infrastructure. They also suffer from a lot of theft, and for the most part, people lack opportunity in what could be a flourishing industry. What’s being done? When you consider the life and culture of Papua New Guinea, building a cohesive infrastructure for coffee production appears close to impossible. The remote nature of Papua New Guinea is unique and complicated, it's the most linguistically diverse region in the world, and its terrain is challenging to travel through.
The Remote Nature of Papua New Guinea
Did you know that less than 10% of the population is connected or uses the internet for communication? Whether landline or cell phone, communication by phone is difficult and unreliable. We all know essential reliable communication equipment is to do business and when these basics are lacking, it's nearly impossible to conduct business efficiently, let alone internationally. The people of Papua New Guinea live in a tribal structure, each with differing cultural practices. Not only do they not rely on modern communications, but Papua New Guinea is home to more than 600 distinct tribes. Some of these tribes have never had outside contact. Their languages can vary so widely from tribe to tribe that even communicating amongst themselves isn't possible. With so many tribes and languages, customs can also vary widely. With all these different scenarios, building a cohesive and thriving coffee industry would be difficult, especially when some of these tribes are literally unreachable.
So Many Languages
When you visit a foreign country, usually there's a main language you can rely on for communication. Even when there are dialects, there's usually a more well-known to fall back on. In Papua New Guinea, there is a trade language known as Tok Pisin. This language is used to conduct business in the bigger cities of Papua New Guinea and is a combination of Creole, English, Portuguese and other regions. It might be the most common language and only just recently became an official language. And if you look at government documents, most of those are in English. If you travel into the country, you'll find that most people live in tribes, and each tribe may have its own language, not just a dialect, but an entirely different language. There are 832 living languages in Papua New Guinea. Some of these languages aren't written and are just spoken, only adding to the complexity of communication that is already difficult. Papua New Guinea tops the list of countries with the most languages and has more languages than the whole continent of Europe, more than even Indonesia, Nigeria, and India. And if that wasn't enough, over 80% of Papua New Guinea's population lives in rural areas and has minimal contact with outside influences or other tribes. Some of the tribes have never had contact with the rest of the world. It's hard to imagine how this is possible in today's modern world.
Even though Papua New Guinea is the largest of the Pacific Island Nations, large doesn't necessarily mean developed. One of the reasons is its terrain. It's among the most rugged in the world. Its total land area is over 462,840, with altitudes over 15,000 feet. It has enormous mountain crests over 15,000 feet, surrounded by slopes and valleys with fast flowing rivers that have long cuts into the country's interior, blocking the way for outsiders. The geographical diversity is astounding, with offshore islands, lowland forests, extensive marshes, and dry savannah. Only 13% of the country is inhabited and has abundant natural resources. However, those resources are hard to get to. Generations of people live in Papua New Guinea, and they rely on their agriculture for survival.
It's easy to see the uniqueness and complexity of Papua New Guinea. As a country and a culture, it's a fascinating study, and when you try to connect it to coffee, I wonder if it will ever thrive. It appears to be a difficult task. I've written and researched the traceability of Ethiopian coffee and discovered that it was challenging to attain. And while it remains far from perfect today, we can find out so much more about where our Ethiopian coffee comes from. I don't know that Papua New Guinea will ever make the same strides as Ethiopia. How do you overcome these language issues to communicate more cohesively? Maybe if there is more commonality in language someday, then the coffee industry could thrive. For now, we are excited to offer coffee from Papua New Guinea for the first time. We liked it so much that we are serving it on bar at the Sagebrush Coffee Shop. If you're local or visiting the Phoenix area, come and enjoy a cup of your favorite espresso drink. If you love our roasted coffee, grab a bag, and if you roast at home, get some green coffee to roast to your liking. We are confident you won't be disappointed.