Coffee company Kokako turns its PNG farmers into business owners and artisans

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Back to origin

Few people think much about the origins of their daily coffee brew. But Mike Murphy thinks about this a lot – and travels to Papua New Guinea to visit the source of his beans.
In north eastern Papua New Guinea, the Saruwaged mountain range brushes the skyline with a lush green, and dirt roads at the edges of its peaks twist and turn perilously close to cliff faces. The remoteness is palpable, the jungles thick with diverse flora and fauna.
And here, a beige Land Cruiser turns about the bends, heading for Neknasi village and its plentiful coffee plantations. Mike Murphy, Kokako coffee company’s managing director, sits inside the truck as it rattles across potholes. This is his third time in the country, and coffee is what’s brought him here. Look around in the Morobe province, or practically anywhere in the country, and coffee plants grow plentifully across the landscape. Papua New Guinea provides beans for Kokako’s popular Aotea coffee blend and, as Kokako is a Fairtrade-certified brand, the 10-day Fairtrade Australia New Zealand quality and empowerment workshop trip (which took place in May) presents a fitting opportunity for Murphy to learn and teach.
Papua New Guinea looks like paradise, but for the people of this southwestern Pacific nation, poverty is prevalent. Almost 40 percent of the population lives below the international poverty line, with job opportunities unequally distributed and government corruption rife.
An estimated 70 percent of women will experience rape or some form of sexual assault in their lifetime. And when it comes to coffee farming – one of the country’s largest export industries – corruption and inequality are not exempt, meaning oversight and regulation of the industry from fair trade bodies is crucial for worker empowerment. It’s easy to forget about these facts when we sip on our morning flat whites.
But Murphy never wants to forget about the workers who pick the coffee cherries. “If I could spend more time at origin, I’d be stoked. I’m trying to create a balance where I can support coffee producers and also run a successful business,” he says. Currently, Kokako’s coffee beans come from 10 different origins, including Sumatra, Honduras, Colombia, Uganda, Ethiopia and Guatemala. Time-wise, it’s not physically possible to visit every source, which is why Papua New Guinea has become Murphy’s key focus; geographically, it’s relatively close to home. “There’s no point in us having a scattergun approach to adding value and creating empowerment for coffee producers,” he says.
The workshop unites 30 leaders from 10 different cooperatives across Papua New Guinea. Each morning, both in Neknasi, where Murphy learns from farmers about coffee cherry picking, and in Lae, where he spends time teaching roasting and cupping (coffee tasting), he gets up at 6am, when the sun rises, and makes coffee for the group. In Papua New Guinea, ironically, farmers do not have the facilities to roast and grind their own beans, meaning common beverages are simply instant coffee or black tea. “You see them come up with this massive grin on their face,” says Murphy, referring to the farmers tasting the local coffee he roasted, brewed and filtered through an AeroPress. “Their eyebrows go up and when you see that, that’s when your heart is like, ‘oh my god, I know I’m doing the right thing, this is awesome’.”
Murphy’s key focus, aside from ensuring quality practices at origin make for great tasting coffee, is to encourage growers to see themselves as artisans and embrace the stories they have to tell. “They need to consider themselves as not coffee farmers, but business owners and artisans. They’re producing an artisanal product with their hands,” he says. Consumers are increasingly concerned with the origins of their coffee and who that coffee was grown by, he stresses: How it was picked, how it was harvested, and how many metres above sea level the cherries grew are important pieces of knowledge for the passionate coffee consumer. Although, he acknowledges, these are relatively new consumer interests. “When I bought Kokako 10 years ago, I tried to be too sustainable too soon. I didn’t have the volume and the scale of coffee sales to be able to do compostable packaging or all of these things that are becoming more mainstream now,” he says. “Now, we’re in a better position because we’ve grown over the last 10 years and we have more scale and so we can actually afford to do all of these other initiatives. I’ve said to people before, ‘if nobody else is going to try and be a specialty coffee company that is also fair-trade and also organic and also cares about climate change, then who else will do that?’”
A primary benefit of being part of a cooperative for coffee growers is that new market opportunities can be unlocked. “Certainly from my experience, farmers who are not in a co-op are at a major disadvantage, primarily that they don’t have the ability as a group to go to an exporter and sell their coffee for an agreed price,” Murphy says. Instead, if a coffee grower is a subsistence farmer, like most are in Papua New Guinea, and independent of a cooperative, their prices are dictated by whatever the roadside traders may offer. Additionally, being part of a cooperative that is associated with the Fairtrade organisation means that growers can earn a premium on top of the Fairtrade prices, which can be invested into social, economic and environmental advances.
The workshop also unites communities from across Papua New Guinea that would never otherwise have met, says Murphy. “Traditionally, there’s been quite a bit of tribal conflict in Papua New Guinea. They all come together for a common goal, and that is to learn and to better themselves, better their communities and improve the quality of their coffee. The generosity and kindness that we see, it is an emotional thing to witness.” Lunchtimes bring the group together, where plates filled with taro, k¯umara and other root vegetables are served and enjoyed as a community. “The meals are amazing, and primarily organic because they don’t need pesticides and sprays and stuff like that,” Murphy says.
Back in New Zealand, Murphy has often wondered why he runs a coffee company. In a market of never-ending business opportunities, the world is his oyster. And yet, Papua New Guinea has solidified his passion for coffee. “I’ve gone on this really weird path of running this coffee company and then realising through what I do in Papua New Guinea and working with the farmers and working with the cooperatives, that it is one of the most emotionally fulfilling things that I can do in my life.”

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Freelance Journalist and Creative Copywriter