PNG coffee, an incredible story to tell
In the build-up to the inaugural National Coffee Symposium 2019, international coffee specialists have been invited to participate at the symposium. They bring with them a wealth of knowledge in coffee and will team up with local coffee specialists to chart a way forward for the industry.
MICK WHEELER was appointed Overseas Representative of PNG’s Coffee Industry Corporation and PNG’s Permanent Representative to the International Coffee Organisation in 1982. He played a leading role for PNG’s coffee industry in export quota restriction imposed by the International Coffee Organisation on producing countries in the 1980s. Mr Wheeler reflects on 40 years of being an international advocate for PNG coffee.
Q: Please share a brief background about your interest in coffee and how PNG coffee came into the picture.
MW: It is difficult to trace exactly when my interest in coffee began but I do recall with fondness the fact that one of the luxuries that was enjoyed in my house when I was young was the Sunday morning cup of coffee. Tea was drunk at all other times of the week, or occasionally maybe a cup of milky instant coffee, but on Sunday mornings the whole family would all enjoy freshly brewed ground roasted coffee. It was a delight. Little was I to know then, that coffee would take centre stage in my career and that it would become a lifetime passion.
For just over 40 years now I have worked for and with the coffee industry of Papua New Guinea. I initially came to PNG just after Independence as an economist for the then Department of Primary Industries and was posted to Milne Bay, but it was not long before I found myself transferred to Port Moresby and given responsibility for coffee. In that role I designed and secured funds from the World Bank for the 20-hectare coffee block project and also designed the guidelines for the Coffee Industry Stabilisation Fund. Both projects had chequered careers, but both served the industry well for a number of years.
When International Coffee Organisation quotas were introduced I became the chief negotiator for PNG at the ICO and managed to secure small but significant increases in our market share. With the collapse of quotas, I moved on to working for the Coffee Industry Corporation on a part-time basis, which enabled me to also work as a consultant for FAO, The Common Fund, The World Bank and for the International Trade Centre. It was with this latter agency that I co-authored “Coffee, an Exporters Guide” and I have also written three other books/studies on coffee as well as various articles, most of which have been on PNG coffee. From 2004 to 2011 I worked as the Executive Director of the Speciality Coffee Association of Europe, so have developed a strong understanding of both sides of the industry. More recently I redesigned the PNG coffee grading standards which I have high hopes will be adopted and implemented very soon. In 2017 I was awarded an OBE for my services to the coffee industry of PNG.
Q: What sets PNG coffee apart from other world-renowned coffees?
MW: PNG coffee is unique in so many ways. Coffee is so well suited to the PNG climate that any coffee grown here has that fantastic blend of flavour, body and balance in the cup that is found in coffees from only a few other origins. Furthermore, PNG coffee has an incredible story to tell and images that not only promote the country’s culture and heritage but draw in and secure the interest of buyers at every level. Our potential is phenomenal, but alas, all too often the coffee is let down by inconsistency. An inconsistency that is the result of many different factors, all of which can be tackled and overcome, but it must be acknowledged that so often this is easier said than done. Nevertheless, significant progress is being made and with the right support we can rebuild and regain the reputation and market share that we once enjoyed.
Q: What are you expecting out of this symposium?
MW: The global coffee industry is a difficult and complicated business, but it can also be very rewarding. Nevertheless, coffee prices are extremely low at present with little prospect of getting better any time soon; indeed, the dynamics of the industry worldwide are changing rapidly and there is no doubt that the PNG industry must adapt to survive. The specialty sector holds a lot of promise that PNG can and must access, but to do so requires a change of approach and strategy. The report gives some valuable insight as to how this can be achieved, but its recommendations require fine tuning and an orientation that I am hoping the national industry representatives engaged in this seminar will be able to give.
Q: What are some of the immediate changes that need to take place for the transformation of the sector and what is the best approach to this?
MW: Transforming the sector will require a tremendous effort, an effort that requires everyone in the industry to agree on the direction we must take. But it will take more than that, it will require a commitment from every level of decision making that coffee is not only important to those engaged in the industry but also to both the micro and the macro economy of the country. The recommendations require the allocation of resources, a comprehensive strategy for their implementation and the adoption of a realistic timetable. We must, however, also take into account the experience of the past and be careful not to repeat the same mistakes. As a first step we should give priority to the provision of the different types of training recommended in the report in order to promote a culture of business in all aspects of the industry. I would argue that there is also a need to identify those coffees which will be the country’s flagship coffees, blazing a trail that others can follow.
Q: Further comments?
MW: This is a fantastic opportunity to address many of the important issues that confront the industry today. Some of those issues are internal while others external but all need to be managed in a positive constructive way. There is a need to acknowledge that there are already a number of really positive initiatives being undertaken in PNG which must not be overlooked or under played, but I am hopeful that the report will be the catalyst for a renewal of an enthusiasm that will revitalise the industry, enabling it to continue striving towards its full potential.