April 6, 2022

How can digitalisation connect consumers to coffee farmers?


Digitalisation is increasingly becoming an area of focus for the global coffee industry. 

For producers, it means improving how data is stored, as well as increasing access to this data and the necessary tools to utilise it. On the other hand, it means buyers, roasters, and consumers can reliably know where their coffee came from and who grew it.

Digitalisation is an important topic at both ends of the supply chain. But how can it be used to shorten the gap between producers to consumers? And will doing so help the coffee industry become more transparent and sustainable?

To answer these questions and learn more, I spoke with three people at Yara. Read on for their insights on digitalisation in the coffee industry.

You may also like our article on how digitalisation can improve profitability on coffee farms.

farmers benefitting from digitalisation

What does digitalisation mean for producers?

Broadly speaking, digitalisation at origin means improving how producers can input, access, and utilise data. This could be anything from coffee prices and predicted weather conditions to farm maps and soil health.

José R. Sanín Abisambra is the Senior Manager for Yara’s Coffee Club: a mobile app designed for coffee farmers. 

“Digitalisation means keeping track of all relevant variables and ensuring that information will be available,” he explains. “This enables all stakeholders to make more informed decisions, and improve farming practices, coffee productivity, and coffee quality – driving sustainability and improving farmers’ livelihoods.

“Most stakeholders – including farmers – are sometimes unable to trace back the costs (economical and environmental) of coffee production, trade, and transportation.”

If data isn’t stored electronically across the coffee supply chain, it can be difficult for producers, traders, roasters, and consumers to trace coffees back to the farm they were grown on. It also restricts access to the information concerning what was paid for the coffee, including farmgate or freight-on-board (FOB) prices.

“One of the reasons why coffee can be economically and environmentally unsustainable is because most of its production and trade remains ‘invisible’,” José tells me. “To resolve this, we launched the Coffee Club in Colombia in March 2021: an app designed specifically for coffee growers that is available to both Android and iPhone users.”

Statista estimates that by 2027, around 7.7 billion people will have access to smartphones – which undoubtedly includes some of the 125 million people who rely on coffee for their income.

José explains: “We initially thought it would be difficult for the app to reach a wide audience, but we have connected with more than 20,000 farmers from coffee-growing regions across Colombia.

“The average app user’s farm size is 2ha. This means we are reaching smallholder farmers that could benefit the most from having access to digital tools on their farm.”

coffee cherries

Improving coffee quality and productivity

One of the many benefits we see from digitalising the coffee supply chain is an improvement in access to education and farming tools. 

When scaled properly, it can drive long-term positive impact for both coffee quality and productivity. But how can this be achieved?

“Yara’s Coffee Club has four key features that provide access to important digital information – helping farmers make informed decisions and improve coffee productivity and quality,” José tells me.

“With a local weather forecast, farmers can access a detailed, hyper-local five-day weather forecast for their farms, including chances of rain, expected temperature ranges, and anticipated precipitation volume,” he says. “This enables coffee farmers to plan their work and to identify the best times to carry out key activities, such as applying sanitary controls.”

The correct application of fertilisers is proven to improve productivity, which ultimately helps to increase farm profitability. One way of assessing the optimal application of fertilisers is by measuring soil health.

Victor Ramirez Builes is a senior scientist and Technical Expert in Coffee Tree Production for Yara. He tells me why soil health is so important for coffee farmers.

“Soil health indicates the capacity to which the soil can support coffee production, but it also maintains the ecosystem, such as water quality, nutrient cycle, and carbon fixation,” he says. “When soil health worsens, the productivity of coffee plants falls, so it’s important to improve and maintain soil health through the proper and balanced applications of fertilisers.”

By improving access to digital farming tools – such as Yara’s Ayra, AtFarm, and Farm Weather Digital Tools – coffee producers can accurately and securely store data related to soil health. Recording this data allows farmers to track soil health variables (such as nutrient content) more reliably.

“The continuous measurement of soil health allows producers to make better decisions regarding applying fertilisers, such as the frequency and quantity of application,” Victor says. “Also, improving carbon storage and fixation protects soil under extreme weather conditions, reduces the risk of erosion, and helps to mitigate climate change.

“When soil is more healthy, fewer external inputs are needed,” he says. “There is also a more positive and direct impact on achieving net lower greenhouse emissions, on reducing production costs, and on improving economic and environmental sustainability.”

farmer benefitting from digitalisation

Making data accessible through digitalisation

While recording and storing accurate farming data is an important step in the wider process of digitalisation, it can only become effective when the majority of producers have access. 

Simone Sala is the Director of Global Soil & Ecosystem Solutions at Varda.

“In 2022, Yara established Varda: a new start-up that facilitates the discovery and sharing of agricultural data to support the transformation of the agriculture and food industry,” he says. “Varda operates a digital platform where farm and field data is generated by producers through sensors, machinery, digital farming tools, farm management software systems, and agronomist logbooks.

“Data is safely stored and made available to those operating across agricultural value chains to make farming more sustainable, resilient, and transparent.”

By sharing this data with more coffee farmers, coffee knowledge can be disseminated throughout local communities to build a shared base of knowledge.

José explains how closing the gap between researchers and farmers can benefit coffee productivity. 

“With Coffee Club, Yara has put decades of research and expertise at the fingertips of coffee farmers,” he tells me.

“Coffee Club provides farmers with a detailed nutritional plan that includes a list of products, number of required applications, and the amount of product per plant required to maximise farm productivity.”

However, it can be useful for farmers to have access to real-time information and knowledge, especially in times of extreme weather conditions or rising occurrences of pests and diseases.

“Yara’s digital coffee agronomists can help our users with any problem they might have regarding their farm,” José says. “Coffee farmers can contact our experts and ask them any question related to their farm.

“The communication is direct and flexible, using digital channels that are familiar to coffee farmers, such as WhatsApp,” José adds. “Photos and audio notes can be added to further illustrate the issues.”

Many smallholder coffee producers have limited access to high-quality lab testing equipment to assess factors such as soil health or optimal fertiliser application.

Yara has a digital portfolio service, known as Megalab,” Victor tells me. “This is an analytical service which can receive soil samples from farms. The samples are analysed in the lab, breaking down fertility, respiration, and the amount of carbon stored in the soil.

“These results can be integrated to other tools, such as the Yara Fertiliser Recommendation system, which interprets the lab results and recommends further necessary actions.”

brazilian coffee sack

How can transparency be improved?

In the coffee industry, it’s commonly reiterated that to achieve sustainability across the supply chain, data on farming practices and coffee prices must be made more transparent. 

Coffee prices are continually fluctuating, to such a point that they reached the highest levels recorded in 10 years in early February 2022. 

“The C price is very volatile, so knowing the current price is very important for coffee farmers,” José explains. “Yara’s Coffee Club provides quick access to current prices, including the New York stock market price and local prices in every region in Colombia in the various units (kg, bag, or arroba).

“This is a popular feature; users get notified when the prices are updated.”

For farmers, keeping track of the instability and continuous fluctuations of coffee prices is important, as it helps them improve their incomes. But ensuring that a range of data is available to producers is also important.

“One of the issues with collecting and storing data is that often, different systems and tools are used, which creates enormous fragmentation and makes it time-consuming to aggregate data,” Simone explains.

“For these reasons, Varda developed Field ID – a common spatial reference system to make the aggregation of farm and field data easier and simpler,” he adds.

Providing more thorough guidance on farming practices can enable coffee producers to implement more sustainable systems – leading to more circular economy models on farms.

pour over coffee

Connecting to the consumer

However, it’s not just producers who benefit from digitalisation in the coffee supply chain. 

“Consumers and retailers are increasingly demanding more information about the characteristics and origins of coffee, as well as roasters and traders setting more and more ambitious ‘net-zero’ goals in support for a greener food system,” Simone says.

The Confederation of British Industry says that European coffee buyers are increasingly demanding more information about the origins of their coffees, such as the farm that the coffee was grown on or how much the farmer was paid. 

“Documenting data about how and where coffee is grown and processed is key,” he explains. “Unfortunately, this is a very complex and resource-heavy activity.”

But improving access to data through digitalisation can make it easier for consumers and buyers to trust that their coffee was sourced and produced ethically and sustainably, as data is stored securely.

“Tools such as Field Stories make it easier to search for the required information and facilitate the integrated use of the available data by the end users, such as auditors who can certify the climate neutrality of coffee production,” Simone explains. “By facilitating access to multiple data sources, Varda can facilitate end-to-end traceability of information related to coffee production and processing.”

The feedback from improved traceability and transparency also benefits farmers as well, José tells me.

“When farmers receive direct feedback, they can adjust their practices to fit the needs of the consumers who are willing to pay higher prices for their coffee,” he says.

Ultimately, bridging the gap between producers and consumers will only serve to strengthen the resiliency of a sustainable global coffee industry.

“Bringing consumers and producers closer together will bring efficiency and transparency to the supply chain – allowing farmers to increase the value of their coffees and retain more of that value,” adds José.

Simone says: “Fostering collaboration across actors in the coffee supply chain ensures that both farmers and consumers can share the benefits of digitalisation.”

farmers benefitting from digitalisation

Continued efforts to digitalise coffee production will help producers to maximise both the quality and productivity of their plants. When scaled properly, this can improve their economic outcomes.

However, we should remember that benefits such as these are then felt across the wider coffee supply chain, as consumers can be certain that their purchases are transparent, traceable, and ethical.

“Making coffee traceable and transparent will give both consumers and farmers the power to make informed decisions,” José concludes.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on environmentally sustainable coffee production & profitability.

Perfect Daily Grind

Image credits: Yara

Please note: Yara is a sponsor of Perfect Daily Grind.

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