Improving livelihoods of smallholder coffee communities in PNG

Coffee is the second largest agricultural export in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and employs around 2.5 million people. It is grown in 17 of the country’s 22 provinces, with over 85% produced by smallholders. It is the primary source of household income for many highland communities.  

Smallholder households rely heavily on family labour for harvesting and coffee maintenance. The immediate family is the primary source of labour for coffee production with limited use of hired labour or labour from the extended family (Curry et al. 2017). There is a distinct gender division of labour with men largely responsible for coffee maintenance (e.g. drain maintenance, fencing and pruning) and marketing, while women make a large contribution to harvesting and post-harvest tasks (Curry et al. 2019).

However, in PNG, men typically control the income earned from women’s labour in commodity crop production and this can limit the supply of women’s labour in coffee production (Overfield 1998; Koczberski and Curry 2016; Curry et al. 2019).  For example, Overfield (1998) in a study of coffee production in the Benabena District, EHP, argued that the poor returns to women’s labour constrained the supply of female labour in coffee production to the extent that smallholder production and incomes were reduced significantly.

Coffee growers in the highlands, like other PNG smallholder producers of export cash crops, typically follow a low input, low output system of production (see Curry et al. 2007 for a description of the low input system of production).  This system is characterised by low labour inputs and a low rate of uptake of new technologies and other extension inputs.  A lack of regular pruning of coffee and shade trees, a limited understanding of good husbandry practices and minimal financial reinvestment in smallholder coffee gardens result in low production (Uniquest 2013; Curry et al. 2017).  Low production combined with poor post-harvest processing leads to smallholder production, coffee quality and incomes being well below potential levels.  This situation has not changed greatly since the 1980s.  The recent arrival of the Coffee Berry Borer (CBB) highlights the urgency of improving farmers’ technical knowledge to address this potentially devastating pest.


The project’s overall aim is to increase returns to labour, particularly for women farmers, through the adoption of new technologies and farming practices that improve coffee quality and total production. 

The project’s objectives are to: 

  • Develop, field test, refine and facilitate the uptake and use of an extension training package by government, private sector, the Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project (PPAP) and NGO-supported extension providers. 
  • Develop a model for mini wet mill use by farmer groups that delivers social and economic benefits to men and women that is compliant with the environmental criteria of the main certification organisations. 
  • Identify and develop culturally acceptable and nutrient efficient coffee-vegetable intercropping systems as a means to increase coffee yields and incomes and improve income-earning opportunities for women. 
  • Assess the social and economic benefits to smallholders of direct cherry sales to processors and quantify changes in the amount and distribution of household income between men and women.

In this first blog on the project we explain some of our background thinking on mini wet mills and describe our recent work to establish a trial of a mini wet mill in a village setting near Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province.  In later blogs we will look other aspects of the project.


Village processed coffee is labour intensive, and poor processing techniques, particularly the use of bag fermentation to remove the mucilage (grease) from the bean, results in poor quality coffee and lower prices for farmers.  The mini wet mill takes a lot of the guesswork out of processing, and it is quick and very labour efficient.  Coffee cherry picked straight from the tree is pulped and then the mucilage scrubbed from the bean using a pulper-wet mill combination at the rate of 300 kg of cherry per hour.  The parchment coffee coming out of the wet mill is immediately put out to dry instead of the normal three days for pulping and fermentation.  The quality of the parchment is significantly better than under the old method and therefore commands higher prices.  

If mini wet mills can be successfully integrated into PNG’s socio-economic environment, they have the potential to significantly improve coffee quality, incomes and labour efficiency.  They not only improve quality, but they also significantly reduce the labour requirements of fermentation, washing and drying coffee. 

As well as having environmental benefits through decreased water usage, there is the potential to recycle nutrients from ‘waste’ streams of coffee pulp and water through coffee or food gardens managed by women as a commercial enterprise. Also, by recycling nutrients, the returns to farmers could be further increased by meeting environmental criteria of certification organisations.

There are two major questions concerning mini wet mills that the project seeks to address:

How can increased returns to labour from higher prices (improved quality) and more efficient use of labour from mini wet mills contribute to improving the viability and desirability of coffee production, especially for women?

What is the best strategy of pulp and waste water management from mini wet mills that efficiently recycles water and nutrients and which complies with the environmental certification criteria of the main certification organisations and is considered acceptable to coffee?


Prof George Curry (Curtin University); co-investigators, Dr Mike Webb (CSIRO) and Dr Tim Sharp (Curtin University)


PNG Coffee Industry Corporation: Dr Reuben Sengere (PNG project leader)


Curry, G.N., Koczberski, G., Omuru, E. and Nailina, R.S. (2007).  Farming or Foraging? Household Labour and Livelihood Strategies amongst Smallholder Cocoa Growers in Papua New Guinea. Black Swan Press, Perth.  

Curry, G.N., Koczberski, G. and Inu, S.M. (2019). Women’s and men’s work: the production and marketing of fresh food and export crops in Papua New GuineaOceania89(2), 237-254.  

Curry, G.N., Webb, M., Koczberski, G., Pakatul, J., Inu, S.M., Kiup, E., Hamago, M.R., Aroga, L., Kenny, M., Kukhang, T., Tilden, G. and Ryan, S. (2017). Improving Livelihoods of Smallholder Families through Increased Productivity of Coffee-based Farming Systems in the Highlands of PNG. Project Final Report FR2017-08 for ACIAR project ASEM/2008/036.  ISBN: 978-1-86320-028-8.  

Koczberski G. and Curry G. N. (2016). Changing generational values and new masculinities amongst smallholder export cash crop producers in Papua New GuineaThe Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology17(3–4): 268–286.   

Overfield, D. (1998). An investigation of the household economy: Coffee production and gender relations in Papua New Guinea. Journal of Development Studies34(5): 52–70.

UniQuest (2013). P110959: Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project.Baseline Survey Final Report. Goroka, PNG.

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