The area around Simbai, in the Madang Province of central highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG), is home to the Kalam people, one of the largest language groups in the country.
Story by Mandy Glass, Photos by Mandy Glass and Tony & Lynn Fry
The village is a hub for almost 25,000 people, spread across dozens of remote villages in the surrounding area. There are only two ways in and out of the community - by air or on foot. At harvest time locals walk for up to 4.5 hours, laden with enormous 50kg bags of ripe coffee cherries, to reach the airstrip.
The community depend on two things – the airstrip (and planes that land there) and coffee.
‘During the coffee season we see hundreds of people carrying heavy coffee bags on their shoulders past our house down to the airstrip.’Tony Fry
Near the airstrip there is a new multi-purpose building. Many of the materials used in its construction were flown in by MAF.
Bags of cement, steel posts, corrugated iron and nails all arrived on flights, along with passengers, food and household items.
Between March and May 2018, Pilot Mathias Glass watched as a large building grew out of the ground in a matter of weeks.
The new building is a community hub, flight bookings office, and coffee exchange all in one, with storage space for the huge bags of coffee beans which fill many of the return flights to Mount Hagen.
The business of beans
‘People’s lives here at Simbai totally depend on coffee picking and the local coffee industry totally relies on the airstrip,’ explains Vincent Kaniemba, a local christian accountant who is spearheading the development of coffee production.
A few years ago, Vincent responded to an advertisement in a newspaper for Papua New Guinean investors to develop coffee and cocoa production in remote areas like Simbai.
He sought out a partnership with the Anglican Church, applied for the World Bank funding, and is now the project co-ordinator for five agricultural corporations in the Highlands.
The buildings going up are thanks to a partnership that includes the Papua New Guinea Government, the World Bank and the regions Anglican Church.
'People’s lives here at Simbai totally depend on coffee picking and the local coffee industry totally relies on the airstrip.’ Vincent Kaniemba,
Picking the cherries
Every part of the coffee growing process is labour intensive, which makes small scale production a community endeavour. ‘During coffee season, the farmers camp in their coffee gardens and help each other to pick the cherries,’ Vincent explains.
Once harvested, the farmers remove the red and juicy cherry skin and pulp from the bean by hand, or with manually operated pulping machines, before leaving them to dry in the sun.
The beans are then carried to the airstrip to be flown out from Simbai as parchment quality coffee which is dried, but unhulled.
Parchment quality beans achieve a price of around £1.50 per kilogram, so the industry is not as profitable as it could be. Green beans that are hulled can fetch twice that price.
From the tree to the cup
Vincent sees the potential for Simbai coffee if more of the processing can be done before the coffee is flown out.
His vision is to see high quality, organically grown, Arabica coffee, roasted and ready for the customer loaded onto planes.
He calls it his ‘Tree to cup policy,’ and is looking for overseas markets and export partners.
To this end, a coffee processing plant is being built at the other end of the airstrip.
Vincent also knows that, investing in the local farmers is key to improving the quality and quantity of his product.
Part of his finances has gone towards ensuring the farmers have tools they need like spades, bush knives and secateurs, pulping machines and sacks. They also have access to regular training to improve their coffee farming skills and knowledge.
Sowing and reaping
‘Coffee is the only form of continuous cash income for the people here,’ explains Anglican Missionary Tony Fry who, with his wife Reverend Lynn, has spent the past two years getting to know the community in Simbai. The missionary couple, from the UK originally, are supporting the vocational school in the village.
‘During the coffee season we see hundreds of people carrying these heavy coffee bags on their shoulders past our house down to the airstrip,’ Tony explains.
As an agricultural trainer, Tony teaches students how to maximize their crops through composting techniques that improve the quality of the soil.
Reverend Lynn teaches basic computer skills, tourism and hospitality. She helps students to practise their catering and customer service skills through a new coffee shop she has recently opened.
Cuppa coffee anyone?
Unbelievably, even though coffee is grown in the hills around Simbai, many locals had never tried the coffee they grow themselves.
Thanks to Lynn and Tony working with the Kaironk Coffee Co-operative, Simbai-grown and processed coffee, is now available freshly brewed in the Barnabas Coffee shop.
‘No fertiliser or pesticides, hand-picked and hand-roasted over the open fire. Proper sustainability!’ writes Lynn on Facebook, promoting her product and describing the small-scale project they have undertaken to supply the current demand.
The Barnabas Coffee Shop also serves cake, biscuits and some basic meals like soups and curries.
‘People really enjoy it,’ said Lynn. ‘And our girls have really grown in their self-confidence, approaching and serving male customers with a firm and friendly demeanour.’
What’s the verdict?
The coffee shop is a ten-minute walk from the airstrip, so unfortunately, the MAF pilots don’t often have time to pay it a visit on their frequent visits. ‘Otherwise our hardworking pilots could have a decent break every time they fly to Simbai and indulge in freshly brewed cup of coffee right where the beans are organically grown and processed,’ explains Mandy, wife of Mathias Glass.
But Mathias and Mandy did bring some coffee back with them from a recent trip to Simbai and enjoyed a brew in the comfort of their Mount Hagen home. ‘The Kaironk coffee I mentioned in the Simbai story is really good! We like it!’ Mandy concludes.
‘No fertiliser or pesticides, hand-picked and hand-roasted over the open fire. Proper sustainability!’ Lynn Fry