Story Mandy Glass. Photos Mathias Glass (MSG), Mandy Glass (MG) and Tony and Lynn Fry (TLF)
People’s Lives totally depend on Coffee
Vincent Kaniemba, a local from Simbai, has the vision to secure the future of Simbai’s many coffee farmers and to improve their income. A few years ago, the trained accountant with a degree from the Divine Word University at Madang, stumbled upon a newspaper advertisement: The PNG Government, in association with the World Bank, was seeking Papua New Guinean investors to professionally develop local coffee and cocoa production. Vincent partnered with the region’s Anglican Church, came up with a concept and won a bid. Today, he is the Project Coordinator for five agricultural corporations in the Highlands.
The multi-purpose building next to the parking bay is visual evidence that things are moving forward at Simbai. Near the bottom end of the airstrip, a coffee processing plant is being built.
Vincent is aware that besides the investment into the local infrastructure, he also needs to invest in the farmers, to enrich and encourage them. With the help of the World Bank grant, the farmers were given tools like spades, bush knives and secateurs, pulping machines and sacks, but also consistent training to upgrade their coffee farming skills.
“During coffee season, we see hundreds of people carrying these heavy coffee bags on their shoulders past our house down to the airstrip,“ says Tony Fry, who with his wife, Reverend Lynn, teaches at the Anglican Vocational School in Simbai. “One of the main coffee plantations is at Kaironk, a 4½ hour hike from the airstrip! Coffee is the only form of continuous cash income for the people here.“
“People’s lives here at Simbai totally depend on coffee picking and the local coffee industry totally relies on the airstrip,“ reinforces Vincent. “During coffee season, the farmers camp in their coffee gardens and help each other to pick the cherries.“
By hand, or with manually operated pulping machines, the farmers remove the red and juicy cherry skin and pulp from the seed or bean which is then sun dried. The bean is then flown out from Simbai as coffee parchment quality, which is dried but unhulled coffee beans, packed in sacks of 50 kg each.
Coffee buyers like Ray Bruk, also a local from Simbai, and who owns a trade store there, frequently charters MAF aircraft to take trade store goods into Simbai and coffee out of Simbai to sell it to the coffee roasting and packing facilities in Mt Hagen. He pointed out that he totally relies on MAF’s air service: “Sapos MAF i no stap na servim mipela mi no klia. Tasol MAF is stap na servim mipela ol tarangu manmeri long ples na wokim servis bilong mipela ol tarangu lain long ples. Mipela tok tenkyu long MAF helpim mipela insait long ol remote areas. Tenkyu long MAF kapani i save helpim ol trangu manmeri long ples.“ (“If MAF wasn’t there to serve us I don’t know what. But MAF is there and assists us underprivileged people providing service to us village people. Thank you MAF for helping us in the remote areas. Thank you to MAF for the continuous service for us under resourced village people.“)
Vincent sees the potential for more development and wants to expand the local manufacturing process. His vision is to see export-ready products flown out of the village: high-quality, organically grown Arabica coffee from Simbai, roasted and ready for the customer. He calls it ‘Tree to cup policy’ and is looking for oversea markets and export partners.
Therefore, the next step for the project is to see green beans leaving Simbai instead of only parchment quality. Parchment coffee price is currently K4.50 to K6.00 (a Kina is about 30 cents US) but the freight cost of K2.80 per kilogram reduces the margin to the grower. The further processing to „green bean“ stage will increase the price to K8 to K12 per kilogram. The new processing unit will also enable byproducts such as aromatic soaps to be produced
Thanks to Reverend Lynn and Tony Fry and their support to the Kaironk Coffee Cooperative, Simbai grown and processed coffee is already available. On the 24th of July 2018, Lynn posted on Social Media: “We are pretty happy with this. We have been helping the Kaironk Coffee Cooperative with these coffee bags and labels. No fertiliser or pesticides, hand picked and hand roasted over the open fire. Proper sustainability. Coming for sale in Mt Hagen very soon.“
The package reads, “Produced in Kaironk, Madang Province, PNG. Made from Highlands Arabica beans grown without chemicals or fertiliser and hulled and roasted by hand by the Kaironk Coffee Cooperative.
The Kaironk coffee will be sold at the Sweet Spot Coffee Shop and Restaurant at central Mt Hagen.
The Donkey Trail
A few people run guesthouses for tourists and so create some income. But this industry is far from flourishing and providing a stable income for the people. Currently, the extended Wengi family of Simbai and the two communities of Alvan and Kaironk are hard on the go to establish the Simbai-Dusin Donkey Trail, a walking and cultural experience in the mountains between Simbai and Dusin.
The Donkey Trail can be walked in 4 days, but a 7 days itinerary with a rest day at each guest house, giving the opportunity to enjoy Simbai hospitality. Each of the guest houses has designed a programme of activities to learn about and experience the life and culture of the Kalam tribe.
And with it comes the hope of generating a sustainable income. It is a joint collaboration between the three communities, each providing accommodation but joining together to promote the Donkey Trail, hopefully for the benefit of all. Each community will be providing different activities.
The inspiration for the trail comes from some local family history, in 1967, Michael Courage, a missionary working in Simbai, had the vision of bringing donkeys to help the Kalam tribe. Unfortunately, those donkeys who managed to survive the long journey from Lae via Madang to Simbai, never bred. Today, only the story of this unique initiative remains. Recently, the idea was born to establish a hiking treck in memory of Michael Courage, linking the homes of the two men who helped him on his journey. The two are remembered by their nicknames Banana and Donkey. Steven Wengi, Donkey’s son, did never see a real donkey. He is the owner of the Wengi Guest House, situated on a small ridge overlooking Simbai, a 45-minute walk from the airstrip.
The English guided trek takes the hiker to Songvak Resthut, a guest house in the small settlement of Alvan, a steep climb out of Simbai along a bush track, doable in about 3 hours.
Walking another 2 to 3 hours along the old donkey track, crossing rivers and gullies, the next stop is at the Kaironk village. Beautiful, unspoiled mountains with coffee gardens hiding under the canopies of the forest are waiting for the keen adventurer. This is a unique experience of the life and routines of the Kalam people and their sustainable lifestyle in this remote part of Papua New Guinea. At the different guest houses, the Kalam people will present the interested tourist their traditional life skills like cooking in bamboo, bark and gourds, carving arrowheads, killing sticks and shields, making bamboo flutes, a vine swing or rope from natural fibres. The Kalam people are also well known for their traditional dress with huge and impressive looking beetle headpieces. All this will make the Donkey trail an unforgettable memory.
Both, the local coffee processing plant as well as the Donkey Treck, definitely are projects that show great local ambition and will strengthen the coffee farmers and Kalam people in the vicinity of Simbai. But both projects totally rely on the airstrip – having produce and people flown in and out the community. We wish that both will become stories of great success and sustainability!