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The falling price of digital technology and willingness of farmers to embrace it are starting to revolutionize our approaches to technology transfer, as James Alden, Peter Baker and Paul Baranowski explain


The contrasts between the two ends of the coffee chain are becoming increasingly extreme. At the point of delivery to the customer, little is left to chance: take, for instance, the newest generation of espresso machines – a wonder of precision. Not only can the barista set the extraction water temperature to a fraction of a degree, she can also dynamically change it during the 30 second pull, a process known as temperature profiling.

At the other end of the chain, where the coffee is grown, there is no such thing as temperature profiling; no farmer we have ever met knows the mean temperature, range and extremes of his farm, or could make a rough estimate of them, much less how they have changed over the years. Yet we all know that coffee’s microclimate is vitally important to produce the desired cup quality and ensure a profit to the farmer.

Invisible changes

Climate change has been creeping up on coffee farms everywhere over the past 20 years or more years but it is difficult to obtain good data to show it. Thanks to the Colombian Coffee Federation’s excellent meteorological network, however, we can gain some important insights, for example, at Cenicafé, in the heart of Colombia’s central coffee zone.

At that location, during the last seven months of 2015 the absolute maximum temperature recorded for each month equalled or exceeded the long term 1942 to 1993 record temperatures. For five of those months in 2015, the temperature equalled or exceeded 33°C – entering a danger zone where flower abortion becomes a potentially serious problem.

At the same site, the long term sunlight hours mean is 1,842 hours/year (153 hours/month). In recent years, however, levels have dipped by about 20 per cent (Figure 1 lower), so that even in 2015, an El Niño year, levels hovered around 1,500 hours/year. According to the 2013 Cenicafé Coffee Farming Manual, 1,500 hours/year is inadequate for the sort of high-yield production that farmers need to make a profit.

Such detailed data illustrate the sort of problems now facing coffee farmers. In the above case farmers in that zone might seriously consider re-shading coffee plots to reduce the risk of high temperatures – though in so doing, they would further reduce light levels which are already too low. That leaves them in the unenviable position of having to take a hit in hot years; such data should at least make them start to plan for a life after coffee.

To be frank, this specific Colombian climate situation has surprised us: we would never have guessed about the seemingly odd combination of high temperature extremes and declining sunshine levels. But this is precisely the issue. Everywhere is different, especially so with coffee, which is grown in so many different places with so many different microclimates.

Taking control – knowledge is power

From our own field experience, most farmers know that the climate is changing – with less predictable rain patterns, more frequent disease outbreaks, but few have access to the information they need to fully understand what has been happening. They have little idea about whether their farm, which may have been handed down through several generations, is still in a zone considered optimal for coffee growing. It is also our experience that each zone has its own climate issues, but as the Colombian example above shows, we cannot know what it might be without local data.

But there is some good news. The cost of temperature, humidity and other sensors has tumbled in recent years, together with the size and affordability of data-loggers; it is no longer necessary to spend thousands of dollars to install a weather station. At the same time mobile phones (reportedly there are now over six billion in existence) have turned into multi-use platforms that can upload, download and display complex data in remarkably user-friendly ways. Mostly though, farmers do not take advantage of the potential of their devices.

The simple message we want to transmit here is that we can now put into farmers’ and extensionists’ hands a wealth of new information that can materially assist them to make informed decisions and revolutionise technology transfer.

The sad reality is that in all coffee countries, those assisting farmers still largely rely on disseminating Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) to farmers, measures which do not take into account the huge microclimatic variation occurring at the local level. We have come to understand that every farm faces unique challenges and therefore requires unique solutions, but GAP can only promote general solutions to be applied at a nationwide scale.

These generalist approaches also tend to ignore the important individual farmer preferences (go for quality? – go for yield? – go for resilience?), treating them instead as a homogenous group rather than taking the time to understand what they want to achieve from their business.

The approach at Climate Edge (www.climate-edge.co.uk)  is to turn data into action. We are developing low cost agricultural weather stations to collect on-farm climatic data. This gives us an invaluable insight into the unique conditions present on each and every farm, allowing us to diagnose problems, identify solutions and track results. However, at worst data alone is at useless, at best just confusing. We are therefore placing great emphasis on web and mobile applications to turn this data into actionable information which can be put directly into farmers’ hands to help them improve their yields and ultimately their income.

Field trials

Our first trials of the system were carried out recently in Nicaragua as a part of a project funded by Fairtrade International and CLAC (Coordinadora Latinoamericana y del Caribe de Pequeños Productores y Trabajadores de Comercio Justo). During the pilot we placed our low cost (about US$120) weather stations on 10 farms from the SOPPEXXCA and COMPRECOOM cooperatives for a four month trial period.

At the beginning and end of this pilot we also carried out valuable workshops with the farmers, technicians and cooperative leaders to understand in greater depth how we could help them manage their farms. A wealth of climate data was collected automatically with no intervention or maintenance from farmers or technicians. A sample of the sort of data collected can be seen in Figure 2 which shows that the farm’s mean temperature places it in a marginal climatic zone with some worryingly high extreme values that most probably will have caused tree stress and loss of income. A number of blog posts on this project which can be found on our website.

Key lessons

We focus here on three key learnings which we took from this pilot study that are driving us on to turn our ideas into a reality.

The first lesson: there is a huge demand for improved decision support at multiple levels. Farmers travelled for hours on public transport to attend the workshop and receive their data and even farmers who were not in the project engaged with us, asking how the system could be set up on their farms.

Technicians too saw the obvious benefits of accessing information that would improve their ability to carry out their work to a high standard. A commonly used analogy was a comparison to devices such as MRI machines that help doctors diagnose diseases in people which was previously very difficult, if not impossible, before the technology had been developed. Finally, the leaders of the co-operatives placed great value on improving their capacity to help farmers adapt to climate change and be more efficient in their resource use.

The second lesson: farmers clearly demonstrated that they had the ability to combine their immense field expertise with the new technology. The existence of a network of extension agents meant that those less technically confident had the support they needed to overcome any initial barriers. All 10 farmers we worked with soon began to come up with ideas as to how they could solve problems they identified and how the technology would allow them to test whether their ideas were correct. This was of signal importance to us, since it allowed us to step back from the decision making process and focus instead on what information the farmers needed and how we could present that in a simple and comprehensible manner.

The final key lesson:  many of the farmers, technicians, cooperative leaders and other people interested in our work opened our minds to the broader implications of a data led approach. The data being collected from farms will afford opportunities for a range of other businesses. The two most commonly picked out were micro-financers and micro-insurers, where better access to data would allow them to more accurately profile risk and therefore provide their services where currently these services are absent.

We can do better for farmers

Smallholder farmers are not the risk-adverse and backward-looking folk that some may think. They are hungry for new technology and, thanks to the Fairtrade movement that brings them to international coffee meetings, they know that they are getting left behind. We see it as our mission to provide them with affordable technology that can give them new insights and, like the barista that serves our favourite concoction with a flourish, the confidence to take control. In a future article we will show how coffee & climate (www.coffeeandclimate.org) is already using such technology to devise adaptation tools that deliver quite rapid improvements.

The pilot in Nicaragua was therefore a hugely important stepping stone towards our ultimate goal. However, it is just the start and therefore we are looking to grow as a business and push forward the development of our tools. If you are interested in learning more about our approach please contact info@climate-edge.co.uk.■ C&CI


This article has been published in the May 17 issue of C&CI, click on subscribe now if you wish to read other informative articles in the May and future issues of C&CI. 


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