Re-imagining relationships: How Olam Coffee sought the help of hundreds of pastors to help protect farmers against COVID-19


    Pastors in Papua New Guinea are on a mission to help keep coffee farmers and their communities shielded from the coronavirus.

    They are working throughout the challenging mountainous terrain of PNG’s Eastern Highlands province – one of the most remote coffee origins – to convey a message of safety and teach villagers to make masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

    This unique initiative was developed by Olam Coffee’s PNG operations – Outspan – with local religious leaders and the Eastern Highlands Provincial Health Authority (EHPHA). Outspan buys coffee from over 5,000 farmers in the region to sell to international coffee roasters and coffee shops.

    Pastor Simon, chair of the province’s Goroka Pastors Fraternity supporting the programme, has called the Outspan programme “a divine intervention”.

    “Contact from Outspan was the answer to our prayers. We have the manpower and pastoral network to help but lacked logistics support which Outspan was willing to provide,” said Pastor Simon.

    The programme was also supported by Market Development Facility (MDF), a multi-country initiative promoting sustainable economic development supported by the Australian Government (through Australian Aid) and implemented by the Palladium Group. As part of this campaign, MDF is supporting Outspan in this campaign to guide cocoa and coffee buyers and smallholders in PNG on COVID-19 and the precautions they should take. Other forms of support include Personal Protective Equipment for various trainers, distribution of hand sanitisers in village churches, and soap to households for hand washing.

    Agriculture accounts for one third of PNG’s GDP, with coffee and cocoa being two of its most important crops. Given Outspan’s strong presence in these two supply chains, it knew it could play a key role to help these farmers. But it would require support.

    Health services in rural areas are lacking, and the many indigenous populations speak different languages and have different customs, making outreach even more challenging. Poor road networks and communications infrastructure provided additional hurdles.

    Ishan Pasrija, Manager of Outspan Coffee, said, “In other markets like Indonesia and India, we could use our digital platforms such as the Olam Farmer Information System (OFIS) or even SMS to offer information and support more comprehensively. In PNG, as the IT and telecommunications infrastructure continue to develop, we have had to explore innovative ways to reach out to these farmers,” Mr Pasrija added.

    Some 700,000 people live in the Eastern Highlands, with around 95% of the population Christian. Faith and farming are among the two most important aspects of life locally.

    Outspan knew it already had the right components for an impactful programme, having rolled out a mask-making initiative for employees and finding it quickly scalable and with experience offering COVID-19 support elsewhere but the challenge was to convey the messages and training quickly and consistently. The breakthrough came when one of the Outspan employees broached the topic with his church elder. From there, Mr. Pasrija and his team quickly drew up the plan and took it to the local pastoral fraternity and the EHPHA.

    “We really re-imagined how we could collaborate with partners with extensive reach and established structures to scale up support,” Mr Pasrijia said.

    Director of Public Health at the EHPHA, Dr. Max Manape, agreed that the proposed alliance could deliver vital COVID-19 training and messages to remote rural communities across the province’s 264 wards, many of which healthcare workers found hard to reach.

    “Although there are healthcare facilities in various areas, they are sparse - however there are many churches and (our partnership with) Outspan has helped to ensure that training gets cascaded to the rural areas through pastors,” Dr. Max explained.

    Pastors around the province quickly rallied to the call. In just two weeks, more than 750 pastors had been safely trained on COVID-19 awareness and mask-making by representatives from EHPHA and Outspan; the aim is to train 900 by mid-June. They have since been fanning out across the province as representatives of the joint effort, raising awareness about COVID-19 while teaching farmers and villagers how to make masks and why they should wear them.

    Ishan Pasrija, Outspan Manager, interacting with the Pastors during their training in Goroka at Sunrise Foursquare church. The Goroka District Pastor training, conducted at Sunrise Foursquare church, saw an attendance that was 150% of the targeted turnout.

    It was a tough endeavour for many of these volunteers. Pastor Simon recalled how 20 young people from church groups walked for two days just to get to the Obura district to receive mask training from the pastors, while some others had to get around landslides that blocked off roads in the Okapa district.

    Besides mask-making, the pastors have also been distributing educational posters from Outspan with key information on COVID-19 and official hotline numbers. 

    “We have made good progress … but we need more to urgently contribute resources to critical efforts supporting PNG through COVID-19.”

    Mr Ishan Pasrijia
    Manager of Outspan Coffee

    With the success of this tripartite programme, Doctor James Gahare, Health Educator and Promoter, EHPHA, sees the alliance as having huge potential for other projects, including educating the community about HIV and immunisations against diseases like polio and measles.

    The Eastern Highlands of PNG is one of the 20 origins across Africa, Asia, Central and Latin America from where Olam sources and exports coffee to major cities like California, New York and New Jersey. Papua New Guinean coffee is a desirable product, known for its medium body and acidity, sweet and chocolaty flavour, syrupy mouthfeel and fruity notes. While Outspan Coffee only began operations in the country in 2015, it is now one of the top four Arabica exporters in PNG, selling the coffee to international coffee brands and coffee shops.

    Outspan Cocoa is also running a COVID-19 awareness campaign, working with owners of fermenting plantations – which undertake one of the first steps in cocoa production - and farmers to distribute COVID-19 related flyers and posters in the local Tok-Pidgin across many villages in the province of Morobe.

    In “normal” times, Outspan manages the Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project (PPAP) with the World Bank. In coffee, it works with six co-operatives in the Eastern Highlands and since 2016, has distributed more than 300,000 coffee seedlings, planted more than 100,000 coffee trees, given financial literacy training to more than 6,000 farmers, distributed harvest tools to 1,400 farmers and provided training on Good Agricultural Practices. In cocoa, it has been a similar story – Outspan has distributed nearly 1.1 million cocoa seedlings and nearly 3,400 harvest tools to 4,400 farmers across 3 provinces. These cocoa farmers were also trained on Good Agricultural Practices and topics such as health and gender awareness.

    The company will continue this line of farmer-centric programmes in an upcoming partnership with the Asian Development Bank.

    The emerging threat of the coronavirus had thrown up a whole new set of needs in PNG. But Outspan’s re-imagining of its many relationships on the ground has helped to make a difference. As Pastor Simon reflected, “There have been many coffee companies in PNG over the years, but we have never seen such an approach like Outspan’s.”

    “After this is over, we will continue to use this network to do other work that would touch the lives of people in communities and leave no man behind.”

    While solid progress has been made in terms of raising awareness, Mr Pasrijia cautioned that more work lies ahead.

    “Much of the population remains at risk and more has to be done, especially as we enter harvest season. In particular, we need to further improve sanitation and provide more handwashing kits to our farmers and communities. Medical vans will also need to be deployed to traverse the uniquely challenging terrain,” he said.

    “All these require additional resources. We need more to urgently join us and contribute to critical efforts supporting PNG through COVID-19.”  


    On forming unlikely alliances and what we would do if we could turn back time…

    • Identify more respected leaders within the community to spread the message
    • Build on established structures and relationships for maximum leverage
    • Establish a strong communications structure at the start
    • Deliver messages directly to the ward and village levels so that pastors can get all the resources they need more quickly
    • Partnering with our pastors and volunteers even more closely to ensure they can be equipped even to conduct their own trainings after undergoing ours
    • Seek even wider emergency funding to better support and scale up impact on the ground

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