Kainantu High School and its coffee plantations: Riley Warren
In 1974 I was posted to Kainantu High School in the Eastern Highland District as Head of Maths and Social Science. It was my third year in the country, having spent my first two at Goroka High School after graduating from ASOPA. The school was only one year old and I enjoyed my time there, but was posted to Port Moresby High School in 1975 as Head of History.
I could not have been more fortunate than to be in Port Moresby during all the Independence festivities in 1975. Being present in the capital and observing the great ceremonies that saw Papua New Guinea move from colonial oversight to
independence was one of the great events of my life.
They were heady days following independence and full of promise with the country led by an articulate and good leader in Michael Somare. He encouraged the people not to simply look to the government to meet their needs, but to be self-reliant. 1976 saw me posted back to Kainantu High School as Deputy Headmaster under a newly appointed national Headmaster as part of the rapid localisation policy following independence. I was also the Secretary of the school’s Board of Governors.
There was much talk and no small amount of enthusiasm in those days of being self-reliant and not being a burden to the new government. With that in mind, when I heard that Tudor Plantation, a small five acres coffee plantation adjacent to the school was for sale, I brought it to the attention of the Board of Governors. The plantation was owned by a large local company with many holdings in coffee and other enterprises. From memory the cost was some K25,000. Naturally the school did not have cash of anywhere near that amount.
The Governors believed the purchase of the plantation would eventually bring money into the school and so reduce the need for government assistance. Not only that, but the Eastern Highlands was a major producer of Arabica Coffee one of PNG’s export earners. It was considered rightly that the students would learn about coffee plantation management as well as initial processing of the coffee while still at school. With those skills they would be able to run their own plantations back in their villages. The Board of Governors believed this was in every way a positive and beneficial enterprise for the students and for the school. I was asked to find ways of funding the purchase if possible.
Coffee prices were high and I eventually found a bank willing to lend almost the full amount to be paid off in five years. Such a business enterprise for a school was rare if not unique in PNG and the purchase was reported nationally.
To manage the plantation a scheme was set up whereby the students were rostered on plantation clearing and fertilising during work parade. Under the excellent guidance of a staff member with farming experience who was a Canadian Volunteer Abroad, concrete vats were built and hand driven machines to separate the coffee bean from the “cherry” was purchased as well as metres and metres of yellow plastic sheeting to dry the coffee: all the sort of materials that would be used in the village situation for small coffee plantations.
At harvest time students were rostered on to pick the coffee and a record was kept of the weight of the coffee each student picked. At the end of the season a cash figure was calculated from the total weight each student picked and that amount was set against that students school fees: no small contribution.
The Board of Governors, recognising that the oversight of the business side of the school was more than it or the Headmaster could reasonably be expected to undertake, set up a trust to manage the plantation and its finances. Three local expatriates were chosen as trustees. Those appointed were a local Member of Parliament, a businessman with large holdings in Kainantu and a lady who owned plantations and a small business in Kainantu. It was expected they would see to the repayment of the loan as quickly as possible and then arrange for the profits to go to the benefit of the school. I left Kainantu High School at the end of 1977 to take up a post in Lae.
I understand the loan was quickly paid off. However when I visited the school some years later, I expected to see a very well established and well-resourced school: perhaps the wealthiest school in PNG. What a shock I had. While the school was well looked after by the head and the students, it was not much better resourced than many other schools in the country. The school had gone back to having an expatriate Headmaster who told me that the Trustees had not been generous in distributing the profits to the school at all. Instead they had provided a squash court at the instigation of an expatriate staff member who was a keen squash player, but the court had fallen into disrepair through lack of money. The Governors also paid for the set up a computer room for the school. However the real profits for the sale of coffee instead of going to the school were being used to buy other plantations around the Eastern Highlands.
While the Trustee were buying more and more properties Kainantu High School was languishing. Even the opportunity for students to earn money towards their school fees was stopped and the coffee machines and vats for processing the cherry coffee were disused and overgrown so that the students were not learning about coffee plantation management any more.
As I understand it none of the Trustees now live in PNG and one can only wonder at what became of the properties and where the money went that was supposed to go to Kainantu High School. It is a real mystery and a great pity that what had begun so well with great vision for setting up financial security for a school was side tracked.