September 28, 2022

How can data collection be used to improve coffee production?


When discussing how the use of data has changed in the coffee industry, we often focus on the impact for roasters and coffee shops. And while this is certainly significant, more and more producers are using data technology to benefit coffee production.

Historically, coffee farmers – particularly smallholders – have had a distinct lack of access to modern data collection methods. In turn, this can make it difficult to identify ways to improve their farming and business practices.

So, with a growing focus on democratising access to data at origin, how do we expect this will shape the future of coffee production? And how can access to data collection be scaled across the Bean Belt? To find out, I spoke with PRF Colombia panellists Ricardo Pereira and Nicholas Castellano. Read on for their insight.

You may also like our article on how technology has changed in the coffee industry over the last few years.

Cupping coffee for quality control data with Unitrade in Huehuetenango, Guatemala.

Why is data collection at origin so important?

Across the coffee supply chain, data collection is an essential part of communicating and improving coffee quality. This can range from monitoring and redeveloping roast curves to understanding how temperature stability affects espresso extraction.

But while roasters and coffee shops have generally had better access to data, producers have historically relied on more traditional means of data collection, mainly by taking notes on paper.

Thankfully, this is starting to change. Now more than ever, access to data platforms designed for coffee production is becoming more widespread – but why is this so important?

Ricardo Pereira is the COO of green coffee trader Ally Coffee. He was also a speaker on the PRF Colombia Coffee production and technology: How data improves production and business panel

“Data collection should be the basis of business planning,” he tells me. “Producers need to see their farms as businesses, so they need to plan farm management similarly to any other business.

“Collecting and reviewing data can help producers to make better decisions, in terms of knowing which varieties to plant, when to process their coffees, and what type of processing method to use, for example,” he adds.

For instance, data could show that certain varieties may be better suited to different plots of land on a farm, or that specific processing methods could result in higher cupping scores under specific conditions.

Ultimately, without modern data collection methods, producers may not be able to track and review these variables – meaning a potential opportunity to manage or increase coffee quality is lost.

Ricardo, however, explains that data collection for coffee farmers is about much more than this.

“It’s also about understanding and collecting data on the actual costs of managing a farm, so farmers are able to know if their business is profitable,” he says.

Furthermore, with many of the world’s smallholder coffee producers operating at subsistence level, finding ways to increase and diversify their income is needed now more than ever.

Ally Coffee Ethiopia coffee buyer Rahel Mulat inspecting a data collection tag on a drying table at METAD's Gedeb Halo Beriti washing station in Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia.

Which types of data are most relevant to producers?

There are a huge number of data points which can be collected along the coffee supply chain. But an important part of optimising data collection is understanding which information each supply chain actor needs – including coffee producers.

Nicholas Castellano is a Digital Marketer at Cropster and a co-host of the Coffee and Technology podcast. He also took part in the PRF Colombia panel.

Nicholas explains which types of data are important for farmers so they can add value to their coffees.

“For producers who process and dry their own coffee, post-harvest data – such as soil pH levels, temperature, and humidity – are essential,” he says. “When using this data, they can assess whether temperature or humidity levels are optimal enough to carry out the drying phase, for instance.”

According to the International Coffee Organisation, the optimal moisture content of green coffee should be around 11%, although there is no official standard. Generally, moisture content levels outside of a range of 10% to 12% will result in a loss of quality.

He explains that software such as Cropster’s Origin enables producers to access a range of data points in an efficient manner, helping to streamline farm management. 

“[When obtaining and recording more data], producers can make adjustments to their farming practices, as well as being able to manage and check coffee quality during harvest,” Nicholas says.

“They can assess and record coffee quality at the beginning of harvest, as well as cupping the coffees to record scores, flavour notes, and overall profiles,” he tells me. “If the quality is lower than expected, farmers still have the ability to change variables as a means of improving quality – whether that is allowing the cherries to mature for longer or trying out different techniques during fermentation and drying.”

Natural coffee being dried with a thermometer for temperature data collection and control at Finca Santa Elena in Antioquia, Colombia.

Quality control and scalability

For farmers, a significant part of data collection is focused on assessing coffee quality.

“If you have good soil conditions and carry out farming practices to a high standard, [among other factors], you will have good quality coffee,” Nicholas says. “Recording and using data is more about maintaining that quality. 

“Having access to data helps you to maximise post-harvest quality as much as possible,” he adds.

There are endless variables to consider when growing coffee, from the amount of sunlight plants should receive to how much irrigation or rainfall water they need. The same goes for post-harvest processing techniques; farmers need to control these variables as much as possible.

“By having data to hand and analysing on a broader scale, farmers can potentially maximise their yield and carry out post-harvest processing with even more accuracy,” Nicholas explains. “This will only serve to improve coffee quality.

“Some software can include yield calculations,” he adds. “So, depending on how many plants farmers have or how much cherry they harvest, the technology can estimate how much parchment or green coffee they will have.”

Ultimately, using data to improve yields – while still maintaining quality – will help producers to increase their profit margins. What’s more, with data collection and analysis software, they may be better equipped to understand where these profits are coming from and where they can be reinvested.

However, while data collection is undoubtedly important for coffee production, it must be both accessible and scalable if farmers are to use it successfully.

That said, there are signs that accessibility will increase; one key sign in particular is the proliferation of mobile apps targeted at coffee production.

According to Statista, there are estimates that some 7.7 billion people will have access to smartphones by 2027 – which will include many of the 125 million people who rely on coffee production for their income. 

Through smartphone technology, more smallholder producers will hopefully have better access to modern data collection software.

Tracking drying data collection points at Finca Monteblanco in Huila, Colombia.

How can data technology on coffee farms improve sustainability?

When we talk about sustainability in the coffee industry, we often discuss traceability and transparency, which largely focus on where coffee comes from and how it was produced. This places a significant amount of responsibility on producers to provide as much information as possible.

Ricardo explains how transparency and traceability in the supply chain must go both ways so that farmers also have better access to data across the supply chain. 

“Transparency is a two-way street, not just one way,” he says. “It’s mutual and it shouldn’t be something that only roasters demand. 

“Producers should also ask roasters about what happens along the supply chain,” he adds. “Ally Coffee collects data on where most of the value is retained across the supply chain, [which can be useful for farmers to know].”

Much of the value in the coffee supply chain is retained by roasters and coffee shops through the sale of roasted coffee or coffee beverages to the end consumer. As such, data on price transparency can help people throughout the industry understand where we can potentially address equity issues to improve long-term sustainability and profitability for actors throughout each stage of the chain.

“If we have transparency from the beginning to the end of the supply chain, we can encourage more constructive conversations,” Ricardo says. “We can make the coffee industry more sustainable – not just for consuming countries, but also for producing countries.

“If we don’t support people at origin and ensure there is better access to data collection technology, education, and opportunities, fewer people will be interested in coffee production,” he adds.

Drying coffee with a moisture meter at Hacienda Casablanca in Santander, Colombia.

Democratising access to coffee production data is clearly one way in which we can support farmers to improve coffee quality and yields. However, beyond supporting producers to evaluate and analyse data on farm performance, it can also be used to understand more about their cash flow and where to invest profits.

Ultimately, however, data collection at farm level is about much more than quality, yields, and profitability figures. When we consider it as part of the bigger picture, it’s clear to see it will be an important discussion point as far as creating a more equitable coffee supply chain is concerned. 

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how coffee producers can benefit from data.

Photo credits: Ally Coffee

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