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