- Covid-19 and rising costs have accelerated technology in the coffee sector
- Most of the tech innovations are concentrated in consuming countries
- Some believe the view that coffee farms lack innovation is shortsighted
YOU’D BE forgiven for having never heard of the Olive Challenge Demo Day. Held in Athens, the annual contest is organised in collaboration with the Greek government and invites key stakeholders in the olive oil industry to come up with “the next best thing” in the sector.
Last year 15 new ideas were unveiled, all of which could supposedly revolutionise olive and olive oil production. They ranged from a digital system to help control pests during cultivation to unusual new products such as olive oil drops, and a cloud platform to safeguard quality during storage and delivery.
In the Global North, technological innovations such as these are proposed and implemented at a production level all the time. Their aim is typically to improve efficiency, lower costs, and become more competitive – or a combination of all three.
Pioneering innovations are also regularly introduced in the coffee industry in an effort to make it more streamlined, cost-effective, and – increasingly – environmentally sustainable. However, unlike olive oil, most of these innovations tend to happen downstream of production, such as at a roasting or customer-facing level.
In most cases, technological developments at the consumer end of the supply chain have far outstripped those in farming. In the UK alone, the premium automated coffee market has doubled in size since 2016, for example.
Nick Castellano, who works as a product marketing specialist for Cropster and hosts the Coffee and Technology Podcast, says that there has been a lot of advancement on the barista side in particular.
“One trend I’m seeing is a lot more automated brew logging happening behind the bar, to understand what’s happening in the espresso machine and improve the barista’s work”, Nick explains.
The outbreak of Covid-19 and the global response to containing it accelerated technology in many sectors, including coffee.
In order to survive, many coffee shops and roasters fast-tracked the introduction of digital solutions to continue reaching customers, while areas such as home roasting and brewing developed at breakneck speed to meet demand.
Ensuing labour shortages, logistical disruptions, and, more recently, rising energy costs, mean a lot of customer-facing companies have continued on this trajectory of innovation to stay competitive.
At a farm level, on the other hand, little changed during the same period, despite many producers suffering from similar grievances.
In Colombia, for example, the majority of coffee is still handpicked – a time-consuming and labour-intensive practice that does not respond well to labour shortages and rising costs of production linked to Covid-19 and inflation.
To this day, widespread mechanisation in coffee farming remains for the most part the preserve of Brazil, where many producers adopted mechanised techniques in the 1960s to better cope with rising global demand.
This is unlike the olive industry, where most groves around the world use some form of mechanised pruning, which shakes the olives from the trees into a net, reducing the reliance on pickers.
Yet Nick explains that one of the main reasons coffee producers have lagged behind in terms of agricultural innovation comes down to the availability of capital.
“In terms of tech, innovation is coming mostly from the larger estates”, Nick says. “They’ve been experimenting with fermentation, for example – understanding how coffee is reacting in fermentation and manipulating that.
“But overall, there isn’t much national or farmer investment allocated to technological innovation in production. Many producers just don’t see the return on investment – in Latin America at least. For example, in Colombia, the mentality is still to just secure enough cash flow to pay for groceries and bills. Long-term vision mentality remains a luxury.”
He explains that financial hardships and inflation make it hard for producers to experiment. Consuming countries count importers, roasters, distributors, coffee shops, and baristas – there’s a bigger pool to justify investment and motivate innovation.
Levelling the playing field
Leveraging technology in production is certainly a worthwhile sector investment as climate change worsens and costs of production soar.
Innovations to increase the climate resilience of coffee plants, enhance productivity, and improve data collection to optimise consistency and efficiency will go a long way to addressing environmental and living income concerns.
But while there are a number of companies in consuming countries working on this, such as Cropster, Demetria, and Farmer Connect, how can coffee farmers themselves develop new solutions?
“The biggest thing is first to understand the cost of production, and to find digestible ways to collect and analyse that data,” Nick says. “These are the bases we need to cover before producers can step up innovation.”
Raising awareness of the benefits of technological development in production and clearly outlining the return on investment will also help secure public-private partnerships for national investment in coffee-producing countries. This will inevitably unlock opportunities for tech solutions generated at origin that are tailored to local contexts and needs.
However, not everyone believes that consuming countries should automatically assume their relatively limited idea of “innovation” should take precedence.
Kostas Kallivrousis of Ally Coffee explains that innovation in areas other than technology is considerably more advanced than some countries in the Global North.
For example, social innovations, such as democratically owned cooperatives are an incredible contribution to the quality of life of coffee producers. These innovations, Kostas explains, are just as necessary to the advancement of the coffee sector as machine-driven innovations.
“Is innovation actually coming from consuming countries,” he asks, “or is what we call innovation just our ideas of what the future should look like?”