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Embracing Digital Agriculture: Coffee’s Fourth Wave?

August 22, 2018

Editor’s Note: Shuchi Nijhawan, is VP of agriculture at Eka, a smart commodity management software company. Here she writes about the adoption of digital agriculture in the coffee industry, particularly in India.

A cup of Joe in Milwaukee. A morning espresso in Milan. An artisanal third-wave blend in Mumbai. Coffee culture is globalized. The world is on a serious caffeine kick to the tune of 500 billion cups of coffee every year.

This $100 billion industry is predicted to grow even more as coffee consumption increases in developing nations. The current forecast for world coffee production is 159.9 million bags (60 kilograms), with global consumption forecasted at a record 158.5 million bags.

Coffee has become one of many commodities facing a significant increase in demand thanks to changing demographics and a rising middle class with disposable incomes and leisure time. The feathered froth on a cup of flat white has become an international symbol of affluence and aspiration.

However, that growth trajectory has hit a major roadblock. Coffee supply faces a global crisis in the form of climate change, and the prognosis is bad in almost every coffee-growing region in the world.

The climate challenge

Coffee is the second most widely traded commodity in the world, right behind crude oil and its derivatives. It is grown in over 50 countries and consumed on every continent. Entire communities depend on coffee for their survival, with small farmers fighting to stay alive while facing growing environmental challenges.

A long-term increase in the amount of extreme or unseasonal rainfall has led to lower crop yields, while higher temperatures, longer droughts, and more resilient pests have already reduced coffee supplies in recent years. The coffee berry borer, for example, has a much bigger habitat from which to wreak havoc on coffee crops, while the devastating coffee rust fungus can now spread to the cooler mountain areas that have previously been beyond its reach.

In contrast, the coffee beans they attack have less and less land available in which to thrive. Several studies have predicted that the amount of suitable farmland for coffee growing will halve by 2050. In Ethiopia – currently, the world’s sixth largest producer – 60% of coffee production will be gone by 2050. An ecological model of Latin America suggests that the habitat for coffee could shrink by as much as 88%, with particularly large losses in the lowlands of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Venezuela.

And coffee is not exempt from the problems associated with diminishing bee populations. A report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicts that up to 51% of all coffee-growing areas will have fewer bee species by 2050, which will dent yields further. To minimize the loss of these essential pollinators, the researchers suggest that growers minimize the use of pesticides and maintain the diversity of native plants to support the bee populations that remain.

These biological solutions are clearly an important part of the picture. But coffee growers will also need other innovative ways to produce more coffee using less arable land, less water, and fewer resources. This was the conclusion of the Coffee Board of India, where coffee production declined by nearly 30% between 2002 and 2013 as demand increased. The Board has applied the latest thinking in technology and digital thinking to the age-old problem of optimizing crop yields and the more recent challenges associated with sustainability and productivity.

Mobile, cloud, and AI

The Board’s approach is an example of how smartphones, cloud solutions, and artificial intelligence are being used to help growers develop effective strategies against the ravages of climate change and the associated challenges.

It’s an important development for the Board’s members. Where the industrial internet of things has garnered the lion’s share of attention from commentators, analysts, and users, the Board is adopting an approach, powered by Eka’s Digital Agriculture Platform, that embraces all aspects of digital agriculture to improve the quality and quantity of coffee members can produce.

A hyper-local weather forecast app gives coffee farmers an early-warning weather system, so they can better prepare for drought or flood conditions in their area. With predictions covering the upcoming 15 days supplemented by daily forecast updates giving an efficient prediction of rainfall, farmers can manage their irrigation systems effectively – and even plan planting and fertilizer use.

Using a disease identification app with machine-learning algorithms, farmers can evaluate crops for pests and disease. The farmer can simply upload a photo of a plant that is causing him concern, and the app analyses the image to identify evidence of disease or pests with an overall accuracy of over 90%. It gives farmers immediate information on what pests they are dealing with so they can quickly eliminate the problem before it causes any further loss of crops.

Farmers can also use mobile apps to analyze weather data in conjunction with historical disease occurrence, to predict the likelihood of a disease outbreak for specific crops. Using the app, the farming community can determine which areas are more susceptible to a specific disease and its impact on the next harvest. They can identify which weather conditions favor which diseases, and the pest management programs to purchase as a result.

Finally, the Coffee Board of India is taking advantage of one of the decade’s most talked-about technologies: blockchain. A marketplace app designed to drive automation, trust and accuracy into the supply chain, the blockchain enhances the visibility of the country’s coffee markets. It helps farmers find the most profitable trading partnerships and develop better buyer networks. For smaller farmers in particular, this ability to directly access buyers in the ecosystem without an agent represents a potentially huge income boost.

This is just one example of how innovative technology is being used to address the challenges facing the world’s coffee markets. Farmers have found other creative ways to improve yields, including challenging historical practices. For a long time, farmers would remove trees to plant more coffee and maximize yields. Today, however, many farmers are leaving taller trees to increase the diversity of wildlife in the coffee farms. Leaving these trees reduces pest damage because more animals are consuming the pests that would normally be eating the coffee. This also fertilizes the forest floor naturally, reducing chemical usage. In fact, one study in Jamaica found that insect-eating birds benefitted coffee farmers $125 per acre in pest control a year, making it a great outcome for the farmer and the end consumer.

Irrigation systems are also essential to increase yield while facing water scarcity. Small farmers in remote areas can grow more coffee with less water by using practices like drip irrigation. Using drip irrigation, farmers target the specific root zone of plants for watering rather than applying water across the crop. Using this targeted approach, they apply less water and eliminate waste through runoff and evaporation.  These farmers can produce more consistent and better quality coffee using less water.

Innovative technology also extends into retail markets to fuel growth for coffee shops. Starbucks has introduced an alert system that sends alerts to consumers when they walk in and lets them know about specials, discounts or coupons. Smart kettles and app-assisted manual brewers allow coffee shops to track multiple brew devices, aggregate brew data and provide more consistency to their customers. Technology is driving the entire coffee value chain

Technology is transforming coffee farming in a targeted way that meets the reality of daily life for the world’s commodity growers. This is technology that arms farmers with information that is necessary to face down the ravages of nature, without aggravating the problem still further in the future.

That is great news for growers – and for their bleary-eyed customers around the world.

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