Amidst growing concerns that the world might run out of coffee by 2080 it’s no wonder that ‘sustainability’ is turning into a major buzzword for the coffee industry. Finding a sustainable way to produce the world’s second most traded commodity on the planet is important for everyone. It’s important for the small-scale farmers who grow coffee for their livelihoods; it’s important for the consumers who enjoy coffee; and it’s important for our precious environment.
This article focuses on some of the challenges of sustainable supply chains at the farmer level. The isolated nature of the majority of coffee farmers makes getting information to them difficult, and also creates a challenge for businesses looking to increase sustainability. Coffee farmers often live in areas that do not have internet access, so for these farmers it is very difficult to find out information about sustainability or organic farming methods. The ‘off-the-grid’ nature of their existence often makes new education seem like an insurmountable challenge.
There is also a challenge around finance. Because so many coffee farmers live on such low incomes (the majority survive on less than $1 a day), switching to growing coffee in a sustainable manner also needs to be a viable option for them financially.
Finally, for businesses who source coffee, the isolation of their farmers poses serious challenges to gaining visibility over coffee production, communicating with farmers and instigating significant change. Do you know how many coffee farmers in your supply chain are women, or young people? If coffee rust was to sweep through your supply chain, could you take action to save the crop, or would you only find out about it when it was already too late?
In order to achieve any kind of lasting change within a supply chain, it takes time, resources, and co-operation, but how can any of these things be successful when so many coffee farmers are almost completely off the grid?
The recent ubiquity in mobile technology has created a huge opportunity for the coffee industry. 90% of people in developing countries now have access to a mobile phone, which means that farmers can receive advice straight to their mobiles, without needing to leave their farms. SMS is helping people grow coffee sustainably in a myriad of ways and here is a showcase of some of the top players in the industry.
The social network WeFarm is the world’s first peer-to-peer service for smallholders which connects farmers directly to other farmers. WeFarm enables farmers to receive farming advice straight to their mobiles via SMS, completely free of charge, from fellow farmers around the world. Initially developed as a communications platform for farmers to share grassroots innovations and sustainable farming practices, the service allows farmers to get tailored information specific to their situation; a coffee farmer can find out about the best plants to intercrop in their region, or learn how to increase yield with organic fertiliser.
WeFarm can also supply coffee companies with real-time information and actionable insights based on the farmer-generated data, enabling businesses to gain visibility over the farmer level of their supply chain. WeFarm can also be used as a 2-way communication tool for coffee companies to engage the farmer level, by sharing information with their farmers via SMS. There are currently more than 50,000 farmers registered to WeFarm in Kenya, Uganda and Peru and it is the only solution that includes countries in both Africa and Latin America.
Connected Farmer Alliance (a partnership between U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Vodafone and TechnoServe) allows businesses to better manage their farmer data, drive business analytics, and communicate with farmers through the sharing of information. They also offer a service that lowers transaction costs and reduces risks for agribusinesses to source from smallholder farmers. Connected Farmer Alliance is available in Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania.
Esoko is an Africa-wide initiative whose primary focus is facilitating markets (‘Soko’ means market in Swahili, and ‘E’ stands for electronic) but can also enable farmers to gain information on other topics regarding agriculture, including sustainability. Coffee businesses can disseminate information about growing requirements, weather reports, and tips on growing coffee via SMS, but coffee farmers cannot search for specific information.
The recent boom in SMS services in agriculture has given power to farmers to gain information easily, and there are countless other companies that focus on specific regions or crops (iCow in Kenya and CocoaLink in Ghana). If we are to create truly sustainable supply chains, players in the industry should take advantage of the existing technology in order to empower farmers to learn more about sustainability and how it can benefit them personally.
The opportunity for a sustainable coffee revolution is in our hands now and at the fingertips of coffee farmers worldwide.
For more information on how you could partner with WeFarm please contact Amy on firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Amy Barthorpe, Head of Business Development, WeFarm