A visit to Lae and Unen Choit Cooperative, Morobe district
By Henrik Rylev – August 2018
On August 7th 2018 I left for PNG to visit Unen Choit, a coffee cooperative situated in the Morobe district, and Niugini Coffee Tea and Spice (NGCS), an exported based in Lae. This trip was organized by Mike Murphy, MD of Kōkako Organic Coffee Roasters, and we were also joined by Sam McTavish, Kōkako Head Roaster, and Josh Griggs, photographer. The timing of this trip worked in perfectly with John Burton Ltd, as we also had plans to visit since we started buying their Fairtrade Organic coffee in 2017.
While in PNG, we will be staying in the village of Wasu. Here, they have recently built a wharf, to load a barge with the collected coffee parchment to move it to Lae to be processed.
Our first meeting was with Mr Gabriel Iso (Fair Trade PNG) to go over the details for the visit, and a quick meet-up with Debborah Yassah who has been working on an exciting Cascara project, before going to NGCS’s headquarters to meet up with Anton Goonetilleke, an old friend of John’s. He is a well-known name in sourcing and producing top quality coffees in PNG and Indonesia. Anton greeted us with a cupping of coffees and later a visit to their mill. Great to catch up with him again as I last met him on a trip with John to Sumatra back in 2016. After spending half a day at NGCS we headed off to meet with Terry Molock, head of Unen Choit Coop, at their small office. Sam and Mike had plans to spend the afternoon teaching Molock’s team how to use their newly purchased sample roaster, so I set off to explore Lae.
Travelling to Wasu
After a 4 am wake up call, and a few hours of waiting around, we boarded the plane to Wasu. It was a clear day and we had a fantastic 45 min flight through the mountains and landed on what could be described as their extended soccer field.
Arriving in Wasu
We were greeted by the local community with a sing sing in traditional attire of loin cloths, grass skirts, beads on strings and a dead bird of paradise on their head . We followed the procession through the village, being joined by various community groups along the way, until we reached the meeting place in the main square. A stage had been built for us to sit on while speeches and gift-giving took place. It was a very humbling and emotional time, as you know that it has taken days to make the beautiful gifts; handmade Bilums (woven hand/carry bags) flower leis and necklaces. I was honored to also receive a Bilum and 2 necklaces by a female farmer and her child. Three hours later, it was time to see our sleeping arrangements; newly built offices on top of a storage place to be our rooms kitted out with a thin mattress and an outdoor deck with a table and chairs, where we would have our meals.
An hour after settling in, we met up with 100 or so farmers, some who had traveled for miles, for a Q&A session. There were some great questions asked and it was nice to relay to the farmers where their coffee ends up in New Zealand. This session took a few hours, with the temperature sitting close to 30 degrees, we were ready to go a see where we could have a cold shower ‘Wasu style’. We walked through native palm trees and bush until we reached a river mouth by the beach; Men on one side and women to the other. This was probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever had a “shower/bath”. The beach was pristine, with white sand and palm trees, and the water was clean and cool. Amazing! We could have spent hours there, but wanted to see their newly built wharf where they load the coffee in parchment for the 2 day boat ride to Lae. The sun was setting while dinner was being prepared; rice with corned beef and vegetable leaves and boiled potatoes. Beautifully prepared and very tasty. It got dark at about 7 pm, so after some conversations about the day’s events and preparing for tomorrows journey into the mountains, we hit the sack at 8 pm.
The roosters started at about 3 am, and not long after the dogs and pigs joined in, and at 5 am everyone was up looking forward to the sunrise. After our breakfast, prepared by a crew of 5 fantastic women, we jumped into the good old trusted Toyota land cruiser troop carrier and off on our extremely bumpy ride. With us was Gabriel Iso, Daniel from CIC (Coffee institution Corporation of PNG), Molock, two other guys from the cooperative, and our fantastic driver. After about an hour’s drive , we arrived at the first village and group called Satop. We were given another traditional welcoming, with speeches and gift exchanges, and a warrior’s head piece with feathers to wear. After this ceremony, we got on with the meeting and tour of their facilities.
We got to Gilang early afternoon where we officially opened their brand new warehouse, courtesy of the Fair Trade premium. After this, we went for a long walk through the mountains, to where their coffee trees are situated. They also had their hand pulper station and fermentation shed/hut in that area. We discussed how their coffee trees were perhaps 30 to 40 years’ old, meaning increased maintenance to keep them going, and less overall yield (usually meaning less money earnt).
Coffee Weighing Station Pulper
After another one and a half hours’ drive, we arrived at our final stop for the day. Diram village is about 2000 meters above sea level, so quite refreshing. We were treated to another spectacular cultural dance and singing fest, with some amazing head pieces worn by the male dancers.
The next morning we were woken up at 4:30am to go down to the local waterfall for a very cold and refreshing wash in the dark, thankfully assisted by Molock and a local with a torch. As we were high up in the mountains, we didn’t really start to warm up until the sun was beaming down on us.
We devoured a standard breakfast of rice, boiled potatoes/kumara and greenery, served by our trusted team of ladies at 6 am, and afterwards we went to see the plantations around the area. We created quite a stir with some of the locals who hadn’t had much interaction with the “pale race”, so there was a lot of starring, giggling and the odd touch on our arm as we were walking. Shortly after setting off, we had amassed an entourage of 50 or so local kids following in our footsteps. We spoke to a good 500 people, which was the biggest gathering I have ever seen in PNG. We partook in a lively Q and A session, before it got a bit rowdy and sounded like a passionate debate in various dialects – our cue to leave. We got out stuff and headed back towards Wasu – A trip through some spectacular mountain ranges, but on the same dodgy road, and arrived in Wasu after 5 hours’ drive feeling battered and bruised.
As the sun rose, we had breakfast and Mike’s great coffee; the highlight of every morning. After breakfast, we set off to visit the cooperative’s newly installed washing station and wet mill. A quick change of plans lead us to a Q and A with local farmers instead. Perhaps the Toyota needed some attention? We presented our learnings and experiences from throughout our travels within the the Unen Choit Cooperative, and answered various Farmer’s questions. After lunch, we boarded the trusty Toyota, and 30 minutes later we arrived to a surprise welcoming ceremony. Lots of singing, speeches, prayers and gift exchanges (never go anywhere in PNG without a little something in the bag). Unfortunately, there were some issues with the water pressure on the wet mill so it couldn’t operate properly, but as we had all seen one in action before, it was no big deal. Overall, it was an impressive place with a good infrastructure; Will Valdere from Fairtrade ANZ has been instrumental in setting it up.
After a 5 am start and a quick breakfast, it was off to the airfield. Everyone had gathered outside where we were staying, somehow there were double the amount of people, to give us hugs, handshakes and high fives, as well as old ladies crying and clicking their tongues (I still do not know what means). We made our way to the airfield quickly as we were told that the plane only comes in occasionally so you don’t want to miss it. We checked in, were weighed up on the scales, and the waiting game began. After an hour we heard a plane coming in, followed by the sound of it turning around as it was too cloudy. At 11.30 the finally plane arrived. The cloud cover had lifted so it was able to land. We had an amazing flight back through the mountains and our pilot –who happened to be a young Waikato lad- guided us safely through to Lae airport.
Back in Lae
On our last morning we headed to NGCS to meet Anton and his staff for cupping and evaluation of the various coffees we had collected while on the trip. While Sam was roasting up the samples, Mike and an Unen Choit representative were interviewed for national TV and newspapers. I went with Anton to meet up with one of our shipping companies (Swire) at the port of Lae to have a brief overlook of their organisation.
After lunch, we had the opportunity to cup and help identify potential microlot coffee’s – hopefully these will one day be available!
We soon found out that Molock and Daniel did not make the next plane, so they had to catch boat to the nearest city, and then drive another 5-7 hours, so we would not be seeing them before we had to leave. That put a dampener to the end of the trip and showed us how difficult transport is in PNG and how remote some of these places are. Mr. John Nightingale who is the owner of NGCS kindly took us out for dinner to the famous Lae Yacht club. We were treated to some amazing steaks and side dishes.
Sitting on the plane home, going over this trip, I can only say that this was -again- a very productive trip. Always helps when you are in very good company and your hosts are so fantastic. I can’t stop thinking about how isolated these guys in the Unen Choit Coop are and for some reason still manages to get us this fantastic coffee with the help of the exporter and processor Niugini Coffee Tea and Spice. Some of the places we visited are so much off the beaten track and where it can take days for some of these growers to get their parchment to Wasu and yet there’s no complaints and only smiles, happiness and friendliness when visiting. Something I think we all could learn a lot from in our -so to speak- materialistic life, compared to this unique and beautiful part of the world where I was fortunate enough to visit and be welcomed into.
Until next time.
Photos by Henrik Rylev and Josh Griggs