All last year, problematic weather conditions in Latin America put coffee crops in jeopardy. Mounting temperatures there are thought to have brought on one of the worst recent outbreaks of a disease called coffee rust, which kills the leaves of coffee plants. Guatemala has declared a state of emergency in light of the outbreak, and in Brazil, drought has severely reduced output, increasing coffee prices so much that Starbucks has talked about stopping buying Arabica beans for a foreseen period.
Most of these coffee producers reside in rural areas, with little access to information that could help them manage their businesses better. What if there was a way for small coffee producers to have up-to-the-minute information on climate trends, advice on sustainable farming practices, or coffee market conditions?
Three organizations, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Columbia, SAP, and a U.K. startup called WeatherSafe, are now getting data into the hands of small coffee producers through separate mobile technology projects.
Knowing coffee prices ahead of time might save a grower and his family from paying for a lengthy trip to the nearest trading post. Seeing rain in the forecast could translate into gallons of water reserves for when drought season arrives. And understanding techniques to manage coffee rust could salvage a producer’s income from year to year.
In 2012, SAP started collaborating with the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, or the FNC, to help coffee growers in that country gain access to agricultural training and business data. The FNC and SAP already had an established relationship before the project started since the FNC uses SAP technology to run its enterprise resource planning software.
The FNC decided to make its "coffee portal" application, which uses a SAP database backend, available on mobile. The federation bought tablets for growers to use, where the growers can check coffee prices and product sales in real time and use email. SAP helps support the app. "We work together and decide what is the best information that will be useful for them. For example, the price of coffee, every day, is so important for them," says Kira Angulo, National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia account lead at SAP.
Growers can also see whether their product has been sold at the regional cooperative, rather than waiting for their next trip to find out. "If they sell some coffee that they left at the cooperative, they want to know this information. Through the portal, they can see that," Angulo says. "Or they can see if the coffee is in the cooperative, and nobody buys this coffee."
Under its corporate social responsibility scheme, SAP has been providing the funds to support the FNC's technical training for Colombia’s coffee growers. The FNC training not only covers how to use the tablets and the app but also better farming management and coffee cultivation methods. So far, 500 growers and their families have been trained, but the FNC hopes to eventually reach the 560,000 families that it represents.
The SAP-FNC project is essential to bringing mobile technology to Colombian coffee growers. The hope is that through better education and technology access, these coffee growers can improve their situation.
It turns out that Colombia has been better prepared to combat coffee rust than its neighbors. Due in large part to the FNC, the country’s growers are so organized that they benefit from new ways to share best practices for ensuring robust coffee plants. But other countries could benefit from the same type of access to resources.
A small U.K. startup called WeatherSafe is currently rolling out its mobile apps to Rwandan coffee growers. The apps, which come in grower, co-op, and government versions, run on high-resolution satellite data and agronomic data models. Their database technology is based on European Space Agency tools.
WeatherSafe cofounders David Mills and Francesco Liucci had been conscientious of the growing issues in the coffee industry. During a hackathon last year, Mills and Liucci decided to tackle weather-related farming challenges head-on and teamed up with the Rwandan government’s meteorological agency. WeatherSafe claims the apps can help farmers revive their crop in two to three years from coffee rust, while the disease typically runs its course on the vegetation over 10 years.
That is where precision agriculture comes into the picture. Through satellite imagery, hyper-local weather data can signal forthcoming conditions and give targeted warnings to farmers. Coffee farmers can even upload images of trouble spots in their fields to get advice from researchers on how to manage the situation. Data models for the farming areas can also help the growers decide how to handle their fields.
Mobile technology use is growing in the developing world, notably in the agriculture industry. SAP’s and WeatherSafe’s apps capitalize on this trend. But even more transforming is how this technology shapes everyone involved. "Many growers have never used a computer. But they have children in the family who want to see the technology work," says Diana Osorio, lead for Latin America CSR at SAP.