September 27, 2022

How can technology support the future of coffee production?


Technology has played a key role in the coffee industry for decades. Producers, traders, roasters, baristas, and consumers are all becoming more reliant on technology, which is a key part of how the sector is evolving.

At farm level, technology has been used to support coffee production since the mid-20th century. However, since then, there have been further developments as far as automation and equipment are concerned.

Today, we are seeing an increasing focus on using technology to address a number of issues that coffee production faces. These include increasing the climate resilience of coffee plants and improving quality control.

To understand more about how the use of technology could affect coffee production in the future, I spoke with several industry professionals who are developing these technologies and who work with Sucafina, a sustainable farm-to-roaster coffee trader. Read on to find out what they had to say.

You may also like our article on how technology has changed in the coffee industry over the last few years.

Farmer picking cherries from coffee plants

How can technology improve traceability?

When talking about sustainability in the coffee industry, transparency and traceability are some of the most widely discussed issues. 

Essentially, these concepts cover access to production-level information – such as the prices paid to producers for their coffee or the specific plot of land that coffee was grown on.

For many years now, technology has been used to improve transparency and traceability in coffee production. One of the most notable examples is blockchain technology, which allows a number of supply chain actors to store data on a decentralised network system. 

Anyone who has access to the network is able to view the information (including farmgate prices, for example), but they cannot amend or remove the data – meaning the data is secure.

Collins Mugabi is the Sustainability Business Analyst Manager for Sucafina

“One of the many ways in which technology will change the coffee industry is by improving traceability,” he says. 

He tells me about Sucafina’s new Cropin software, which is helping to make coffee more traceable. When a field officer helps register a farmer on Cropin, information about their farm, including location, types of crops grown, any certification and production history, is entered into the system.

“Every batch of coffee which is sourced and purchased using Cropin can easily be traced back to the individual farm, washing station, or buying centre,” Collins explains. 

Improving farmers’ access to financing can also be achieved through technology like Cropin. The software records transactional data, such as volumes of coffee purchased, price per kilogram, and batch number.

The information is stored to create an automatic record of a farmer’s financial history, which can potentially help them qualify for credit or loans in the future.

Kihara Victor is a Systems Administrator for RWACOF (Sucafina Rwanda).

“When we track this data, we’re better able to provide farmers with pre-season loans based on their projected annual volumes,” Kihara says. 

He adds that farmers can then sell cherry to RWACOF’s washing stations, deposit some of their income into bank accounts, and save money to pay back the pre-season loans over time. 

Male workers load bags of green coffee onto a truck at a warehouse in Mbale, Uganda, East Africa.

Streamlining logistics and market analysis

The trade and export of coffee can be fraught with complications – especially when we consider shipping container shortages and rising freight prices.

Tran Dao is the Shared Service Team Leader for Sucafina. She explains how the company is trialling new technology that can accurately track shipments of coffee, as well as making it easier to communicate shipping updates between different supply chain actors. 

“Sucafina is using new smart shipping containers that are integrated with Internet of Things (IoT) technology,” she says. “This is designed to provide real-time data and notifications about the movements and conditions of cargo at any given point in time.

“Using this technology, we can improve the transparency and traceability in our supply chain,” she adds. “We are able to check if there were any abnormal routes or conditions that could affect our coffee, and take appropriate actions to reduce any risk.”

Carolina Guerra is the North America Execution Specialist for Sucafina. She tells me about other technology that Sucafina is using to streamline shipping logistics.

“Cargoo is a new platform that facilitates communication about a specific shipment between all stakeholders,” she says. “The user interface helps to centralise all information about the shipment and reduce the number of emails we send for each shipment. 

“It streamlines the whole process of communication from exporters to customers,” she adds.

As part of the export of coffee, a significant amount of paperwork needs to be completed. This process can be time consuming and labour intensive for many people who work in the coffee industry.

Ilya Byzov is a Quantitative Trader for Sucafina. He tells me how artificial intelligence (AI) technology can help to simplify the process by automatically analysing and storing data from a number of documents.

“If we can automate these systems, we can allocate other tasks to our staff,” he says – ultimately saving more time and money.

Fluctuations and changes across the industry – including in relation to the C price – mean traders generally need to keep up to date with any changes.

Ilya tells me that Sucafina is trialling new analytics software that can assess whether or not any news stories or events will influence the global coffee market.

“This tool would help notify us when a major story breaks, so we can then immediately forecast how it might impact the overall market,” he says.

Farm worker holds washed processed green coffee

Quantifying the environmental impact of coffee production

One way that we can focus on securing the future of the coffee industry is by mitigating the environmental impact of growing coffee, which is becoming a growing focus for many consumers.

Several new technologies can be used to track and measure the environmental impact of coffee production. One such example is satellite tracking technology, used to assess deforestation in the coffee supply chain

Among the many environmental issues in the coffee sector, there is a significant knowledge gap about deforestation in coffee production. It’s also difficult to track deforestation on the ground as the process of collecting data is slow and often expensive.

As a direct response to this, Sucafina has partnered with satellite tracking companies Trade in Space (TIS) and Global Risk Assessment Services (GRAS) to identify where deforestation is taking place in global coffee supply chains.

To identify levels of deforestation across larger areas of land more accurately, satellite technology can track changes in tree cover over longer periods of time. 

Ana Cabezas is a GIS & Sustainability Project Manager at GRAS.

“Remote sensing technology can monitor areas of land and forests to detect any changes in land use,” she says. “It can reach much larger regions of land – even those that are difficult to access on the ground.” 

Robin Sampson is the CEO of TIS. He explains how satellite technology can be used to provide a more accurate representation of deforestation in coffee production.

“There are many satellites in orbit, so there is more data being produced every day than ever before,” he says. “We can instantly find images of any area of land from open data sources.”

“We found that to some extent, deforestation is occurring in nearly all the coffee supply chains that we assessed,” Ilya tells me.

However, it’s important to note that for the most part, coffee production is not the biggest driver of deforestation. In many cases, population growth (and the resulting increase in food production to meet rising demand) is causing deforestation to take place in coffee-growing regions.

Barista pours filter coffee into a white ceramic cup

Adapting to climate change

With climate change now a pressing issue for coffee farmers along the Bean Belt, there is a growing need to improve the resilience of coffee plants. Research suggests that up to half of the current suitable land for coffee production in the world’s top coffee-growing countries could reduce in size over the next 30 years. 

Although there are a number of ways to mitigate the effects of climate change on the coffee industry – including carbon insetting schemes – adaptation is also important.

Lab-grown coffee is one of ways that the industry could potentially use to adapt to the effects of climate change. As the name indicates, lab-grown coffee is cultivated in a laboratory rather than on a farm.

Kristine Breminer Isgren is a Q Grader and the quality control manager for Complete Coffee Limited, which is part of the Sucafina group. She explains that there are a number of technologies used to produce lab-grown coffee – some of which involve no coffee production at all.

The first process she describes, the “molecular method”, uses different agricultural products (such as date pits) to mimic the main flavour compounds found in coffee – meaning it contains no actual coffee. 

The second is the “microbial method”, which uses genetically-engineered microbes to produce these flavour compounds.

The third and final, the “cellular method”, however, uses coffee cells that are grown in bioreactors. These cells are then processed into a powder-like substance that can then be brewed similarly to ground coffee.

While there are a number of benefits to lab-grown coffee, Kristine notes that more research to make them commercially viable will certainly be necessary.

“Lab-grown coffees are technically deforestation-free, use less water, and can be carbon neutral,” she says. “However, more evidence is needed to back these claims up. 

“There would also be major repercussions for everyone in the coffee supply chain, especially farmers,” she adds. “Millions of people are reliant on coffee production for their income.”

Green coffee beans on sale at the Mercato market in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Improving quality control

A key area of focus in the specialty coffee sector is on improving coffee quality as a way for farmers to receive higher prices in the long term. For many years now, a range of technologies have been used to support this.

Nicolette Yeo is the Head of Marketing for ProfilePrint – an AI-powered food “fingerprint” platform that can be used to determine the cup score, taste profile, moisture content, and density of a given sample of green coffee.

“ProfilePrint allows all users to understand more about the quality of green coffee,” she says. The technology works by matching molecular signatures (levels of chemical compounds such as proteins, amino acids, sugars, and more) in green coffee with specific flavours and aromas found in roasted coffee beans.

As well as simplifying the quality assessment process, technologies like ProfilePrint could provide more objective cup scores for producers, green coffee buyers, and roasters – improving consistency and productivity.

As part of this, The Center collaborated with 45 coffee sensory experts to establish a global calibration model. 

Tim Heinze is the Coffee Education Manager at The Center. 

“Coffee quality is not something that one individual can evaluate,” he explains. “Instead, the entire industry needs to agree on a certain standard.

“Technology like ProfilePrint can make quality control more available to producers who historically have had less access to this information,” he adds. “This technology has the ability to democratise coffee quality control.”

Coffee seedlings sprout in a nursey

There’s no denying that technology has the ability to help us create more transparent, accessible, and sustainable coffee production in the future. Furthermore, it’s clear that those who don’t keep up will be left behind – with no evidence that technological change across the industry is slowing down any time soon. 

Ultimately, it’s clear to see that technology will continue to shape the future of the coffee industry, but how it will do so remains to be seen. As new technologies emerge, we could see the coffee industry change in a many number of different ways – hopefully for the benefit of farmers around the world.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on addressing deforestation in coffee production.

Perfect Daily Grind

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

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