Solar Powered Coffee in Anengu, PNG

Posted in the Uproute Blog on Dec 5, 2016

Solar Powered Coffee: The story of how an Australian kitesurfer is bringing solar power to a coffee plantation in a remote Papuan village.

Guy with the Village Chief

This is a guest post from Guy Dwyer — a great friend to Uproute. I am sure Guy would identify himself as a kitesurfer first and foremost, but when he’s not downwinding in 35knots he’s an electrician focused on sustainable energy; in particular solar. This is the story of how Guy helped a tiny village in Papua New Guinea start a sustainable coffee plantation, and how he’s heading back to PNG to help Anengu keep producing solar powered coffee. —Ed

This is a rundown of how I came to be in Anengu village and how that village is doing something unique in PNG. They are trying to bring themselves out of a purely subsistence way of life and into modern world. I say ‘bring themselves’ deliberately, because that is exactly what they are doing.

With every PNG government department rotten to the core and no money reaching its outlying people for health, education, electricity, roads etc., and banks unwilling to lend them money, they have no access to finance to buy the tools and equipment needed to work their land, harvest and process its produce, and sustain an income. They are stuck in a very primitive existence.

Most importantly they have ownership of their land and a life of total freedom incomprehensible to most of us working away everyday for the bossman.

They still live in bush material houses and cook only by fire but they do have some small glimpses of the modern world and what it has to offer. Every weekend they send around a collection and put in what small money they have from selling their garden produce, then send someone the four hour walk to the highway junction to buy fuel. The fuel is used to run a generator that powers a TV, so they can beam in the NRL footy games and watch trash Hollywood action DVD’s. It’s entertaining, but the NRL also comes with loads of ads trying to sell them all sorts of crap they ‘need’ like dishwashers, holidays and tin fish (which is literally cat food grade in PNG).

Guy with the Anengu future

Unfortunately this picture of the outside world is what they use as their basis for comparison. Because they don’t have a dishwasher and can’t buy new clothes they really do get the sense of being incredibly poor. This is true to an extent but only in terms of cash. They are not poor like a huge amount of Papuans who have left their land looking for jobs and cash (and dishwashers) in the city. Those Papuan’s end up with nowhere to live, no garden to grow food, and no access to clean water — leaving them with few options other than begging or crime to survive.

While it’s true that the Village people have very little cash, they do have homes, gardens full of food all year round and endless clean drinking water. Most importantly they have ownership of their land and a life of total freedom incomprehensible to most of us working away everyday for the bossman.

They do need the benefits that modern development brings but they also need to be mindful of its negative aspects too. Some negative things that are already very slightly showing up in the village are alcoholism, gambling, and buying cheap plastic goods and single use batteries that end up littered around the village. I worry that without some direction and a strong central village leadership they might head further down the wrong path.

I guess my biggest hope is that they will get an understanding of what parts of development are really important to a happy life and a connected community, and what is just the flashy ‘nice to have’ peripheral shit that doesn’t have any long term benefit.

Before I go into the coffee project I’ll just give an explaination of how I came to be in PNG and the village. If you’re already bored and just want to know how the project works then skip this paragraph.

Guy with the lads...

The Backstory

In 2012 I decided that I wanted to go somewhere really off the beaten track and totally unexplored by tourists. I hate to say it but a huge chunk of my previous travel has been bouncing from one lonely planet ‘must see’ to the next getting drunk with other backpackers. While it was heaps of fun there wasn’t really much fulfillment in it and I didn’t balance it as well as I’d like to have with the original intentions of my travel.

On landing in Port Moresby and leaving the airport into what seemed like a war zone I arrived at my security-gated and guarded hotel.

I guess naively, like most young backpackers, I thought I’d being going to exotic countries, meeting the locals, being invited into their homes and experiencing what its like to live in a different culture. The reality being the only locals I could talk to had learnt English for the sole purpose of selling you a Rolax or a tailored suit.

I wanted to really test my comfort zone and PNG seemed like the spot. It turned out to be just that and much more. On landing in Port Moresby and leaving the airport into what seemed like a war zone I arrived at my security gated and guarded hotel. I was definitely a bit nervous and after three days of not seeing another tourist I was starting to think maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew. The only thing I had booked for the whole three months was a stay at the alternative technologies center in the highland town of Garoka and was pretty glad to be on my way out of Moresby four days after arrival.

Guy with Wilson

On the flight to Garoka I was lucky enough to be seated next to a PNG local whose English was better than mine. He told me he was on the way back to his village for the first time in three years. His village was called Anengu which is a two-hour drive from Garoka when it’s dry, or a one-hour drive followed by a four-hour uphill walk to the edge of the jungle if it’s been raining and the road is to muddy to drive.

He told me he was the only person from his village to ever be university educated, and the village was having a feast to welcome him back. With a fair amount of apprehension over the lack of plumbing and electricity, he invited me to come and experience life in his village. He said I would be the first non-missionary white person to visit the village and that many of the kids under 10 would have never seen a white fella.

I was a little nervous and did think that maybe no more white fellas go there cause the last one was eaten. Still, it sounded like an awesome opportunity to see how the locals really live. Worth the risk I thought.

Guy with Wilson

It turned out to be the best risk I’ve ever taken. The village was amazingly beautiful and the people were unbelievably welcoming. After spending three days eating what they eat (which included a traditional feast of a whole pig cooked in the traditional way) sleeping on bamboo platforms next to them and learning Pidgin English, I felt very comfortable there. They were also very comfortable with me and before I was about to leave many of the village men came up to me and offered to give me some land and build me a bush material hut so I could come back whenever I wanted. I thanked them for the offer but told them I wanted to go and see a bit more of PNG.

After going away that night and thinking about it, I realised this was exactly the kind of traveling experience I’d always wanted. In the end I went back to the village and spent a month there building my own bush material hut.

Guy with building his house

Guy with building his house

Guy with building his house

Guy with building his house ^ Photos of Guys house, before, during, and after!

The Anengu Coffee Project

It was such an awesome experience that I had to invite my dad and brother over to come and see the place. While they were in the village we organised for some of the young men and boys to guide us on a trek to Wessan, a village much further into the jungle where many of the Anengu residents are originally from.

If a Papuan tells you they walk it in 10 hours, assume it will take you 25 hours. The terrain is insanely rugged and they literally travel barefoot at almost a jogging pace. It’s hard to understand how rugged and wild it is unless you go but these guys really live on the edge of the world. once you go past Anengu it is steep mountainous, almost untouched jungle for days and days of walking. The whole 2 months in the highlands was definitely a highlight of my life and something I’ll always think back on. A huge part of it being the kind of cultural experience I’ve always wanted but never really been able to find anywhere else.

It’s hard to understand how rugged and wild it is unless you go but these guys really live on the edge of the world. once you go past Anengu it is steep mountainous, almost untouched jungle for days and days walking.

I had many conversations with Wilson about how he could help bring a better life to the people of his village. We emailed a bit on this subject after I left and as time went by he became more disheartened and frustrated about the situation. In an email to my father and I, he asked us if we could help find him work so that he could earn more money and send it back to his village. My father and I both wrote separate emails along similar lines, the crux of it being that there wasn’t really any point earning more money just to give it away, because no matter how much he earn’t he couldn’t support a village of 300 people. If he kept up the handouts there’d be nothing left for him and his family.

I don’t believe in unconditional handouts, I think it fosters laziness and creates dependency and I think he was setting himself up for a long struggle. About six months after that email I received another email from Wilson, this time with a completely different tone. I’m not sure who he had been talking to and how he got the idea but he had decided to put his life savings into a coffee project so he could get the whole village involved and teach them how to help themselves.

The Anengu Coffee Project

Wilson’s entire life savings was a total of about $7,000 — which might not sound like much, but it is a huge sum for the average Papuan. He used that money to buy 100,000 coffee seedlings and planter bags, then had the village people build a huge bush material nursery so that the seedlings could be looked after until they were strong enough to plant. At this point he had run out of money so contacted me to see if I could help with some small money to buy fertilizer to ensure the seedlings had the best start possible. After seeing the pictures of nursery and knowing what it could mean to the village I talked to Dad and we both decided to help them purchase the needed fertilizer.

How the project will work

It had been almost three years since my first visit and I had been wanting to get back there ever since. I decided that now was a great time to go and see the village and find out a bit more detail about their project. When I arrived in the village little had changed from my previous visit, especially the people, who were as welcoming and warm hearted as ever. Of course one notable change was the huge nursery full of little coffee plants. Even though I’d seen pictures of it the scale amazed me.

Even more Impressive though was the structure of the project itself which was what I was most interested in. As I said before, my fear was that with the project there would be quite a bit of money coming into the village, but without leadership it might do more harm than good.

Wilson had also considered this and decided to set up a charter and a committee to administer the funds of the project. The main focus of the charter is to bring basic services to the village in a sustainable way. The main things he’s identified are looking into some basic health care in the form of a clinic visited periodically by a nurse.

The Anengu Coffee Project

He also included subsidised education for the younger generation and getting some form of electricity in the village that isn’t a petrol generator, among other things. All these things we in developed countries consider the responsibility of Government. In Anengu, they don’t have any meaningful access to these basic things so must work together to bring it to themselves. ​

So far there has been limited funding as government funding in PNG tends to disappear without anything to show for it.

Wilson also launched the project and registered it with the provincial government. So far there has been limited funding as government funding in PNG tends to disappear without anything to show for it. They have however provided some drying canvases and some coffee bean processing machines. Hopefully once the land has been prepared and the seedlings planted, the government will see that the villagers are serious and willing to work, and the money is actually being used as intended, there will be a bit more funding made available.

Basically how the project will work is that Wilson will give each village family a share of the seedlings free of charge, which they will have to plant on their land. Wilson studied agriculture at university and is teaching the villagers how to tend their plots and plants to get the maximum yield. He will periodically inspect them and give prizes for the best plots.

The Anengu Coffee Project

This has already been done since I left. It takes 3 years for the seedlings to mature and fruit. In the meantime he is trying to get all the villagers to start pooling some money to take the project to the next level. This is where the project will either succeed and start producing revenue, or it will fail.

At the moment the villagers only process the coffee to parchment stage which means removing the husk and drying it on large canvases called parchments. They then individually sell it to factories in town to get about 4 kina/kg (approximately 2 Kina = $1.00). The aim of the project is to eventually get a machine that process the beans to the next stage of refinement, which is the green bean stage.

Instead of the villagers selling the parchment beans in town they would now sell them back to the Anengu Coffee Project to process. The project pays the villagers the same 4 kina/kg for the parchment they harvest, then processes it to green bean, and sells it to the exporters in bulk for 7 kina/kg. The 3 kina profit they make goes directly into the project account.

The Anengu Coffee Project

This way the villagers each get money to do with what they please in return for their hard work, and the project also starts getting an independent revenue stream which will cover operational costs and hopefully have plenty left over to fulfill the aims of the project charter.

The Anengu Coffee Project

Since the last visit all the seedlings have been planted and the last email I received this week showed them standing in front of 47 x 60 kg bags from this years harvest of the existing trees. As coffee is seasonal, Wilson has encouraged the villagers to use the money to buy vegetable seeds and chickens. The reason for this is to diversify the crop and to produce some income all year round with the vegetables and to use the chickens to keep down pests and reduce or eliminate the need for any manufactured fertilizers. It is already an incredible achievement for a man who grew up in one of the remotest places on earth.

I am very very excited and proud when I think of the possibilities and that it’s 100% owned and driven by the villagers.

They still have a long way to go but they have some very strong leaders on the project and if they all pull together I think they will create a better life for the entire village and set an example to other Papuans.

The Anengu Coffee Project

Editor’s Note: What’s next for the Anengu Coffee Project

Guy has done an incredible job helping Wilson and the village of Anengu grow their project (pun intended) to the scale it’s already reached. As Guy says, there’s a long way to go to make sure the project becomes sustainable financially. To keep helping them, Guy’s next involvement will be to empower the village to reduce their fuel costs by installing solar panels and batteries in the village in September 2017.

He’s currently raising funds to back the installation, and true to form, it’s not just a handout, but a system of loans. For more information on the solar installation and to back the project in it’s next steps, click the big blue button!

Thank you in advance — from Guy, Wilson, the Anengu villagers, and everyone here at Uproute HQ!

The Anengu Coffee Project

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