‘Knowledge is valuable’: Coffee journey going digital for customers, farmers

Update: Microsoft announced on May 6 that it is partnering with Starbucks on its digital traceability technology, using the Microsoft Azure Blockchain platform.

Marcel Kadende has 70 coffee trees. Like many coffee farmers in Rwanda, he learns about the official coffee price for the season by listening to the national radio. Each year at harvest he makes multiple trips from his house to the collection point, a 20-minute journey, where he sells his cherries.

A lifelong farmer, the 72-year-old assumed the coffee he sold each year most likely ended up being roasted and served in Kigali, his country’s capital. But on a recent visit, Surabhi Agrawal from the Starbucks ethical sourcing and traceability team, showed Kadende a map highlighting the journey of coffee from Rwanda to a roasting plant in the United States.

He studied the map, with its line stretching from Rwanda and across the Atlantic Ocean to a roasting plant in the United States. His eyes brightened and a smile slowly crept over his face.

“I didn’t know my coffee left the country,” he told her.

“Access to knowledge is powerful,” Agrawal said. “A farmer who doesn’t know their coffee left the country might not know their coffee is export quality. Knowing your coffee quality as a farmer is important.”

Kadende is one of the farmers interviewed by Starbucks partner Conservation International. Over the past three months Conservation International has traveled to Costa Rica, Colombia and Rwanda to meet with farmers, cooperatives and exporters to learn how traceability programs work for them and hear their ideas on how to enhance the ability of these programs to provide benefits back to farmers. 

“We are taking the time to listen to the farmers and understand their needs in order to design a system that can provides value to the farmer,” said Bambi Semroc, vice president of sustainable markets and strategy for Conservation International.

At the Starbucks Annual Meeting of Shareholders Wednesday, senior vice president of global coffee & tea Michelle Burns will preview a coffee traceability feature for the Starbucks mobile app. Eventually customers will be able to use the Starbucks mobile app to trace the journey of Starbucks packaged coffees.

Burns will demonstrate the potential power of digital traceability on stage by scanning a bag of Pike Place beans, the coffee served in a tasting to those at the meeting. The shareholders will be able to see the path of the coffee beans in their cup from where the beans were grown (farms in Colombia and Brazil) to where they were roasted (Kent, Wash.). She will also show how a traceability tool could potentially include information about brewing methods, ethical and sustainable sourcing and tips for brewing the perfect cup.

A year ago, Starbucks announced the company’s commitment to developing innovative technology platforms to understand the potential for farmer empowerment and to connect customers to the journey of their favorite coffees.

In 2015, Starbucks announced it had reached an industry milestone of 99 percent ethically sourced coffee, consciously leaving the remaining 1 percent to allow for discovery and work in new origins. Any company can claim to source sustainably, and many do, but transparency is key to those commitments, and technology is key to transparency, Burns said.

“Our passion and our love for coffee -- from the ground our coffees come from, to the farmers who handpick the coffee cherries, to the expert coffee roasters who roast each bean to perfection, to the talented baristas who handcraft each beverage for the perfect cup – each step reflects both our Starbucks heritage and a unwavering commitment to a brighter future for our farmers, our partners and our customers,” Burns said.

Since its beginning, Starbucks has known the names of the farmers within its supply chain, including the more than 380,000 farms it worked with last year alone. Through the foundational work in the Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E) Practices program, Starbucks has traceability today. But incorporating technology and digitizing the traceability creates the potential for more ways to share more information with both customers and farmers.

Fernando de Jesus Arango, a Colombian coffee farmer, told Conservation International that coffee is in his blood. Now, it’s also in his smart phone.

He uses the instant-messaging application WhatsApp to connect with his local coffee cooperative to receive information about coffee prices, sustainable practices and social programs. Technology helps him connect with others faster and provides him access to more information and resources. 

Agrawal heard from farmers that knowledge is valuable, including two she met recently, Agnes Mukamukomeza from Rwanda and Sandra Ximena Suarez Bueno from Colombia.

Mukamukomeza, 46, has 450 trees and is eager to learn more about the free farmer training and resources Starbucks offers farmers and about its Coffee and Farmer Equity (C.A.F.E.) Practices for sustainable coffee growing practices.

Bueno, 30, was born on her mother’s coffee farm in Colombia. Her two siblings moved to cities to work, and she had the opportunity to work in a local bakery serving coffee, but she wanted to help her mother grow coffee. They work their steep, one hectare of land together, and Bueno dreams of earning enough money from their coffee to invest in drying equipment and maybe even a bigger farm at a higher altitude to prepare for climate change.

“I see a future with coffee,” Bueno told Agrawal. “I learned how to grow coffee from my mom, and the two of us do all the work on the farm. It is very hard, but I have faith in coffee.”

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