I work for a non-profit-organization whose mission is to support communities in becoming more resilient and improving the management of their natural resources to become more sustainable. We do this in part by helping farmers to earn living incomes – this means helping to ensure that all household members have a decent standard of living including adequate food, water, housing, education, health care, transport, clothing, and other essential needs.
To successfully farm in the 21st century and ensure a living income, coffee growers must adopt a much more entrepreneurial approach to farming. They must have command over an array of increasingly knowledge-intensive farm management solutions to emerging threats – climate change, market volatility, la broca, la roya, varietals and quality.
Vision of the ideal farm operation
Think about it: Becoming a successful coffee farmer in 2016 is a complicated endeavor. Ideally, a coffee farmer will be able to adopt new, emerging, farming practices (varieties, fertilization, management) to ensure that the farm can withstand an erratic climate, while also maximizing the productivity and profitability from the various crops that are planted AND appropriately managing their natural resources. To maximize profitability means that the farmer must track costs throughout the year and can tell you what they expect to earn, how much they can invest back into their farm and how much credit they need for next year. Ideally, they know what they are going to earn because they understand how their local market works. Ideally, they understand what the quality requirements are to access more inclusive supply chains with more equitable distribution of value, therefore feeling confident about the price they will receive. And of course, ideally, they must do all of this while employing an empowered work force that is treated fairly.
I have described a coffee farming utopia – a vision of an ideal coffee farmer that is shared amongst many of us working in this sector. While individual solutions exist for each of these separate issues, the sum of all of them becomes too much information to deal with. To successfully navigate this context, farmers need agile, integrated informatics tools (based on sound, timely data of course) that allow them to quickly process information and make informed decisions, more accurately weighing risks and tradeoffs. If this sounds like I’m selling business analysis software, that’s a fair comparison.
Technologies at work in other sectors
If we look at other rural community development sectors like health care services and disaster response, there are fantastic examples of innovative information and communication technologies (ICTs) available simultaneously in real time (or near real time) to multiple actors and stakeholders. Decision support tools for frontline community health workers have exploded onto the market over the last decade, with many examples that provide tools to quickly diagnose life-threatening situations or to track more complicated cases.
We need to find models of decision support tools that can be delivered to the “last mile” – tools that smallholder coffee farms want use, are easy to use and provide needed services or information.
Today, farmers need:
• Access to reliable data (weather, prices, yields, cost)
• Decision support tools (what variety should I plant? Can I afford a loan?)
• Improved analytical capacities (how do you account for risk and evaluate tradeoffs)
Data. How much data do you go through before you make a mundane decision? Farmers often lack access to reliable sources of data, both external and internal. Farmers often rely on the calendar for weather information and don’t track costs or their yields.
Decision support tools. Much like a filter box when you are sorting options online (i.e., show me flights with: no long layovers, no red eyes, and under $800) these can eliminate items early on so you can clearly focus on the crucial decisions.
Analytical capacities. How do you weigh risk and tradeoffs? What is it worth to you? What are the short term and long term consequences of these decisions?
Making decision-making easier
I consider myself very lucky to work for an organization that is committed to learning. We are constantly learning about what inhibits farmers from succeeding and what are the best solutions to overcome these constraints. We do this through collaborating with others to run experiments, or we learn from our own successes and failures. We hope that with each iteration, we are doing it a little bit better. Along with focusing on engineering more technical solutions to the myriad problems that farmers face, we should also consider how we can make these management decisions easier for farmers. Farmers don’t always have the luxury to learn by trial and error, so we want to make sure we can provide them with the best information possible and tools to take decisions based on these tools.
To this end, I’d like to begin to explore the suite of technological tools currently targeting small coffee farmers and their associations and figure out what are some of the problems they are trying to solve with their tools. I’ll write more about it here.