The world is connected now more than ever. The internet allows people on different continents to communicate instantly and smartphones have made it possible to do so from the palm of your hand. And almost any question can be answered with a quick Google search.
Thanks to this wealth and speed of information, consumers are more conscious about what they purchase and the sustainability and ethics behind their buying. But in some ways, coffee is lagging behind when it comes to traceability.
The supply chain is complex, with mountains of paperwork required to ship a container of coffee, which often passes through many hands from farm to roaster. To address this, Dave Behrends, Managing Partner and Head of Trading at Sucafina, looked at how blockchain technology, digital identity, and different database systems could be used to streamline the coffee supply chain.
This led him to found Farmer Connect, a separate entity to Sucafina, that announced the release of Thank My Farmer in January 2020. The web application uses a blockchain to link the coffee supply chain from farmer to consumer.
Consumers can scan QR codes on certain coffee products, which will take them to a webpage detailing information on that coffee. This includes where it was grown, processed, and exported, when it entered the country, the date and location of its roast, and can go from the café or store where it was purchased. Consumers can also view projects run at origin by the traders or roasters and donate money directly towards such initiatives.
Farmer Connect Chief Operating Officer DJ Bodden tells Global Coffee Report that Thank My Farmer invites consumers to learn more about the coffee they’re drinking.
“By and large, everyone who operates in origin realises that without the coffee farmer, there is no coffee supply chain. That results in a lot of really good, impactful projects being done on the ground, whether that’s teaching farmers financial awareness, making sure they have access to inputs, or teaching them good agricultural practices so they get more out of the farm,” Bodden says.
“A lot of that information is actually not winding up as part of the brand message. People invest their time, talent, and resources, but that message doesn’t always get to the consumer. That’s kind of a shame for the companies and employees doing that work, but it’s also a shame for the consumer who doesn’t get to participate in that story.”
The app takes the IBM Food Trust model – the blockchain system used by the likes of Walmart and McDonald’s – with tweaks to accommodate the more fragmented nature of the coffee industry.
“You might have anywhere from two to 12 participants handing coffee before it reaches the roaster. People need to know the information they’re uploading is not only safe from a security standpoint, but that they can choose how and what is shared,” Bodden says.
“Some companies might want to only share information about traceability with specific partners, some might decide that they don’t want to expose their supply chains, and some might want to go the ‘full monty’ and share the traceability, pricing paid to farmers, and information about certification. We want to give these companies that choice, because everyone’s business model is different.”
During development of the app, Farmer Connect knew that it couldn’t only be accessible to roasters and consumers. Coffee producers across the world with different resources had to contribute information to the system.
“We needed to make sure that Thank My Farmer was accessible to the smallest players at the very tips of the supply chain. For that, we made an application without a complex integration or requiring the filling out of spreadsheets on a computer, which isn’t something always accessible to a farmer,” Bodden says.
“We developed a system that pushes that same transaction information to the blockchain using either a smartphone app or a simple flip phone sending text messages. While smartphones are not that common in rural areas like in East Africa and some parts of Asia and Oceania, a flip phone is something that most farming households will have access to.”
While Thank My Farmer began its life at Sucafina, the green bean trader ultimately decided this system needed to be shared throughout the industry.
“We wanted Farmer Connect to be something that was inclusive of not only the farmer and the consumer, but also players throughout the supply chain,” Bodden says. “The value of a blockchain initiative scales exponentially based off its number of participants.”
Early contributors to Farmer Connect have included traders Itochu Corporation, RGC Coffee, and Sucafina, and roasters Beyers Koffie, The JM Smucker Company, Hummingbird Coffee Roasters, and Bluestone Lane. The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation also took part in development.
“I think different companies are going to come to this with different mindsets. In the specialty world, this is a continuation of the drive to be more transparent and traceable, and to share that information with the consumer. Knowing more about the coffee is part of the experience of being a specialty coffee drinker,” Bodden says.
“On the commercial side, I think it’s a recognition that in general, but with younger generations in particular, the demand from consumers for traceability is only increasing.”
He adds that Thank My Farmer can allow companies from every segment of the industry to learn about what matters most to their customers.
“Customers can show their interest by simply visiting the page. Or they can donate as little as $1 to express their strong support for particular projects, to inform the brands of where their priorities are,” Bodden says.
“By that, we can actually give the consumer a pretty strong voice in the sustainability work done on the ground, in terms of what they want to know about, what they want communicated to them, and what types of things they want brands to participate in.”
With greater access to information across the board, Bodden says soon, a larger number of consumers will have an expectation of knowing where their products came from.
“Imagine if you picked up a food product off the shelf and it didn’t have an ingredients list. Your reaction would probably be of surprise and suspicion. This will be the same for traceability of agricultural products within the next couple years,” Bodden says.
“We want to tie consumers back to the people, supply chains, and work that’s being done in order to allow these products to be available in a store. A traceable cup of coffee should not be the outlier. Within the next few years, it should be the norm that people expect when they walk into a store.”