FNC searches for new harvesting solutions

For the past decade, labour shortages in coffee production, particularly in harvesting, have been a topic of conversation across the industry. Not only is the average age of plantation owners increasing, but also their children are looking elsewhere for career opportunities that are less physically taxing and more financially stable. In Colombia especially, the recent economic revival and the resulting construction boom have been enticing enterprising youth to the cities, slashing unemployment levels to historic lows. Meanwhile, the greater Latin American coffee industry is finally bouncing back from years of low output due to global warming-induced drought and a widespread pest epidemic. In the past two harvest seasons, Colombia’s green coffee bean production has hit record levels not seen since the early 1990s after dropping to all-time lows during 2008 to 2012. According to the International Coffee Organization, total green coffee output from Colombia nearly doubled in the past five years, climbing from 7.65 million 60-kilogram bags in the 2011/12 harvest season to 14.5 million 60-kilogram bags in the 2016/17 harvest season. So amid a return to stronger growth levels, many of today’s farmers simply don’t have enough help to harvest it all. Many farmers have had to leave portions of their small plots unharvested due to the labour shortages. In 2015, Colombia’s National Coffee Growers’ Federation (FNC) told Reuters that most of the country’s largest coffee regions needed 20 to 40 per cent more pickers to ensure quality by picking each berry when it is at its ripest. Today that percentage is higher. As the number-three producer of green coffee and the top producer of high-quality Arabica, the Colombian coffee industry has been hard at work trying to tackle this escalating problem. Growers have steadily increased wages to draw workers back to the fields. In fact, FNC CEO Roberto Vélez reported to Reuters in 2016 that workers could earn up to 2 million pesos, then about US$700 per month – nearly three times the country’s minimum wage. The Federation advertised work opportunities in local media, while growers made public announcements in bus stops and town squares. So in a final call to action, the FNC has launched an initiative to procure and then develop alternative harvesting solutions. With support from Connect Bogotá-Region, an organisation that specialises in facilitating innovation and entrepreneurship, the FNC opened a global competition of sorts to aggregate the best harvesting advancements. The public call seeks to identify innovative proposals, coming from groups of entrepreneurs, researchers and industry companies that, through creative, scientific or technological innovations, make coffee picking in Colombia more efficient, without sacrificing quality. “CoffeepickINN” effectively puts the challenge of making coffee harvesting more efficient in the hands of the industry’s experts and participants – but with a monetary incentive. The FNC, which represents about 550,000 producers in Colombia, has a pool of cash and in-kind resources to invest in the development and implementation of the most efficient and profitable solutions. Through the initiative, “we want to generate shared value between the proponents and the FNC through joint development of innovations that solve the problem of high labour costs in coffee harvesting in Colombia, aiming at higher profitability of producers,” Vélez tells Global Coffee Report. The FNC, through its R&D arm, the National Coffee Research Center (Cenicaf), has started exploring a wide variety of alternatives with the help of coffee growers themselves, whose opinions and recommendations are being taken into account. The tests on the ground thus far include nets for optimising manual harvesting and motorised devices, such as shakers. In the past five years, top producer Brazil has moved to mechanised harvesting to address high labour costs amid worker shortages. “Because Brazil features large coffee plantations and favourable weather, mechanical harvesting is the commonly used method,” explains José Leibovich, the FNC’s Director of Economic Research. “But due to Colombia’s topography and climate variability in the coffee zones, manual harvesting has been the more employed method here.” In fact, the FNC attributes Colombia’s longstanding high quality to meticulous handpicking methods. Colombia’s sloped terrain makes mechanised harvesting through tractor-like machinery difficult. But that’s not to say it’s not an option. Mechanisation of coffee harvesting has been a focal point at various Colombian forums promoted by the FNC, such as at the inaugural World Coffee Producers Forum held last July in Medellín, or more recently at Cafés de Colombia Expo (formerly ExpoEspeciales) held in October in Bogotá. At the more recent expo, Brazilian expert Fabio Moreira, from Universidad Federal de Lavras, explained some advantages of mechanical harvesting. He said constructing stepped terraces could help mechanised harvesting machinery navigate steep, mountainous terrain; though Colombia’s volcanic soils and consequential risk of erosion could pose a challenge for actually building those terraces. On the other hand, he also explained that mechanical shakers can be calibrated in terms of vibration, speed, rod distribution and impact in order to obtain more ripe beans than green ones.
Although the diesel engine, invented 125 years ago, was a milestone for increasing productivity in the field, the Colombian coffee industry is now at a breaking point – hence, this year’s plea from the FNC for alternative solutions. The Federation accepted submissions from 10 July to 29 September, receiving 64 proposed solutions from 15 countries. Colombia had the highest number, with 40; other countries with submissions included Brazil, the United States, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and a handful from Europe. Among the proposals, 59 per cent came from researchers, 32 per cent from entrepreneurs and startups, and 9 per cent from companies. Of the top solutions by type, 49 per cent were harvesting tools and accessories, 15 per cent were data-related, 14 per cent were based on the internet of things (IoT), and 11 per cent were robots. “This great response is a sign of the FNC’s convening power and of the interest of many parties to find solutions to challenges that are common to coffee farming around the world,” Vélez says. Although solutions in the idea or research stages were accepted, innovators with prototypes or partially developed solutions were highly encouraged. And in general, almost any proposals were accepted, with exception to those lacking technical or scientific framework, those requiring an investment unaffordable to the average coffee cherry picker or grower, and those generating negative environmental impacts, including any reduction to the coffee plant life cycle. The innovators had to take into account the specific conditions of the Colombian environment and the various causes of the problem, including technological, agronomic, economic, and human and cultural factors. During the past several months, the FNC has been evaluating the submissions based on a handful of criteria. At the core, the solutions that will advance meet the objective of improving Colombian coffee growers’ profitability, i.e. improving harvesting efficiencies without sacrificing quality. In order to determine the solution’s ability to achieve that objective, the FNC will evaluate the progress of the solution, the technical and economic feasibility of implementation, the technical capacity of the executing team, innovation, consistency and alignment with the challenge, and the scope of the solution. This last evaluation criterion will assess how much the solution addresses the four aforementioned causes of the problem and, thus, factors of the challenge: technological, agronomic, economic, human/cultural. At the surface level, alternative solutions like those that Brazil has employed will help address the immediate issue of labour shortages in rural areas that impact production costs and producers’ income, explains Leibovich. “However, the problem of harvesting goes beyond the technological issue; it requires another set of solutions that aim to solve social, agronomic and economic factors.” From a technological point of view, the goal is to find a solution that is highly efficient (i.e. quantity of beans picked per hour) with high quality (i.e. high percentage of ripe fruit in the volume harvested and low number of fallen fruit). From an agronomic one, the goal is to ensure that most berries are picked at their optimum stage of maturity, taking into account weather conditions and topography and the berry’s stages of development through the full harvest period. The economic factor takes into account high costs of harvesting, poor labour formalisation and a lack of skilled or qualified workers. And at the root of the human and cultural factor is the coffee picker himself, an occupation that is not ranked as aspirational, nor is the work adequately valued by society, leading to an under qualified and ageing workforce. During the final evaluation and selection stages, the FNC will also define the next steps to carry out the chosen solutions at the commercial level, the necessary investment, and ownership of the intellectual property rights associated with implementation of the proposals. “The FNC will select up to five proposed solutions, those with the greatest potential, to be developed and adapted to the specific conditions of the Colombian coffee crops,” Leibovich tells GCR. “A fundamental criterion is optimising coffee harvesting while preserving the high quality that has given Colombian coffee its renown in the global industry.” As an umbrella organisation with icons such as Juan Valdez and ad campaigns focused on single origin, quality and differentiation, the FNC has decidedly contributed to Colombian coffee’s renown as a synonym for high quality. On a larger scale, these labour shortages at the ground level threaten Colombia’s positioning on the global coffee stage. Industry experts expect labour shortages will push Colombia’s coffee prices higher and motivate buyers to look to neighbouring Central America for somewhat comparable quality green coffee at lower prices. This is something the FNC is effectively trying to prevent through its CoffeepickINN initiative. Vélez points out that since the 1960s Colombia has been a pioneer in the global specialty coffee industry by, for instance, betting on single-origin coffee in an industry that was once dominated by blends. Over the coming year, the FNC will finish narrowing down the pool of proposed solutions and roll out those that are estimated to have the greatest impact on the Colombian coffee industry. The FNC’s significant presence in the industry will facilitate support and advancement of the implemented solutions in the near- and longer-term future. Although Brazil has already effectively implemented alternative methods, notably mechanised harvesting, the FNC is once again taking the pioneering approach. The call for innovation from the industry’s participants is a clear sign of the FNC’s leadership and global reach in the search for solutions to challenges that are common to different coffee-producing countries and sustainability of the industry as a whole. GCR

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