Bridging the gap between consumers and coffee farmers

Image: Vanessa Facenda

At the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this week, Farmer Connect and IBM announced a new consumer mobile application called Thank My Farmer, which will allow coffee drinkers to trace their coffee to understand its quality and origin, and even support the coffee producer. The app was developed with companies across the global supply chain including Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE), The JM Smucker Company, Rabobank, RGC Coffee, Volcafe, Sucafina, Beyers Koffie, The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), ITOCHU Corporation, and Yara International. Farmer Connect is a traceability platform powered by IBM Blockchain designed to help increase traceability, efficiency and fairness in the coffee supply chain.

Using the same blockchain technology behind IBM Food Trust, consumers who want to narrow the gap between their neighbourhood barista and coffee farmers now have a solution. Farmer Connect’s Thank My Farmer app is a consumer-facing application that pulls information directly from the blockchain in a standardised way that can be used across the industry. It connects the user to farmers, traders, roasters and brands. The information, which is presented on an interactive map, allows each product to tell a story.

Blockchain technology brings all the parties in the coffee supply chain together, simplifying the exchange and tracking of information and payments, and enabling greater trust. It creates a permanent digitised chain of transactions that cannot be altered. Each network participant has an exact copy of the data, and additions to the blockchain are shared throughout the network based on each participant’s level of permission. Farmers, wholesalers, traders and retailers can interact more efficiently using comprehensive, near real-time access to this data, and consumers can have new insights about the origins of the products they consume.

I first learned about IBM’s work in this area last June when Paul W Chang of IBM Blockchain, presented at both the International Coffee Congress on Sustainability in Berlin, Germany and at the Green Coffee Association (GCA) Convention in Houston, Texas. Attendees at both presentations were skeptical of the capabilities, but Chang said, “Blockchain is email 1985. Like email when it was first introduced, people have many reservations about blockchain, but it’s still in its infancy so there is a lot of misinformation, but the possibilities are huge.”

According to DJ Bodden, chief operations officer of Farmer Connect, IBM showed the functionality in limited scope at CES but expects “partner products with full functionality to hit shelves by March.” Consumers in the United States and Canada will be able to scan QR codes on Smucker’s 1850 brand single-origin coffee. European consumers will be able to access the Thank My Farmer app through a new single-origin brand, Beyers 1769.

As the app expands in 2020, large and small companies will be invited to join, and coffee drinkers will be able to support the communities where their coffee is grown by funding local projects. For example, Bodden said Farmer Connect is working with roaster retailer Bluestone Lane to launch one of its brands in March in coffee shops. “Additionally, we have several other agreements that are either in place or nearing signing that will get announced in the near future,” he explained. “We expect first launches to appear on packaged products or cups (and not to be a countertop point of collection as we have no desire to cannibalise barista tips).”

In terms of “tipping the farmer,” I was curious how exactly that will work given wire transfer fees that are currently in place. Bodden said that at the start, the Thank My Farmer app will allow consumers to share in sustainability governance by being able to learn more and contribute to sustainability projects that are either directly linked to their coffee or are geographically relevant. “At a second stage, we are launching a Farmer App that will have a digital identity owned by farmers and linked to their digital wallet or bank account,” he explained. “Consumer funds will then be aggregated and dispersed to those accounts or through local partners and can be digitally tracked by the consumer to give them the peace of mind that their money has been received by farmers that contributed to their coffee.”

I admit that I’m still skeptical about the ability to tip farmers and consumers’ willingness to do so. However, to paraphrase Raj Rao, general manager of IBM Food Trust, “Blockchain is more than aspirational business technology, it has the potential to transform how people can build trust in the goods they consume and it can enable a channel for real change.”

For more information on Farmer Connect and the Thank My Farmer app, see “IBM Blockchain teams up with Farmer Connect to provide coffee traceability” or visit ibm.com/food. You can see it in action by watching this video.

  • Vanessa L Facenda, editor Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. She may be contacted via [email protected].

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