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Managing the complexity of coffee through the clarity of blockchain

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Blockchain and coffee are a great match. The simple pleasure of our daily coffee belies the fact that the journey to the cup is long and highly complex. Until now the details of that journey have been largely unknown to the drinker. This is a challenge I understand very well, as a coffee buyer with UCC Coffee, a supplier of coffee across the globe and the world’s fifth largest roaster.

We believe that the experience of drinking coffee is richer when you understand where the coffee came from. That’s why we are part of an exciting new project in the UK, along with IBM and farmer connect, that uses IBM Blockchain technology to bring transparency to the coffee supply chain of one of our premium brands, Orang Utan Coffee. Our goal is simple: to improve the lives of coffee farmers and protect their communities from environmental damage.

Growing up, coffee was only on my periphery. My relatives from Mexico were dedicated to coffee farming and exporting, and their anecdotes would occasionally be part of our dinner conversations. But it wasn’t until I started my first job for a legendary coffee company in Hamburg that I really dived into the world of coffee.

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When I was given my first field assignment in Costa Rica, I quickly learned that the most expensive and complex parts of the coffee supply chain are usually found in the country of origin. For example, transporting the coffee cherries (which have coffee beans inside them) by mule to the wet mill for washing is actually more expensive than shipping a consignment of coffee beans from the port of export to its destination across the world.

The most important player is the farmer

While I did not formally enter the coffee trade until I was an adult, what has been ingrained in me from the beginning is that the most important player of the coffee business is the farmer. With the exception of Brazil, in almost all other coffee-growing countries the crop is grown on small farms. This means that the supplier base for coffee is diversified and broad. It also means that coffee gets a lot of personal, hands-on nurturing: 90 percent of coffee cherries are picked with care by real people. Coffee is a small farmer’s cash crop, often their only source of income.

And yet, coffee farmers struggle. The volume and quality of their harvest is heavily dependent on the weather, which used to be fairly predictable. But climate change has upended traditional weather patterns and led to extremes from severe drought to hard frost. Farmers are also seeing their own communities suffering from climate damage. Huge swathes of rainforest are being cleared to make room for palm oil plantations, upsetting the natural balance, changing the soil, and fueling more climate instability.

We want to go the extra mile to help farmers. Today, for every kilo of Orang Utan green bean coffee purchased by UCC, coffee farmers in the Gayo Highlands region of Northern Sumatra receive €0.50 and a further €0.50 goes to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. And now, with farmer connect and IBM, we have launched UCC Coffee’s first ever blockchain-traced coffee.

Now, recorded on the blockchain is the full supply chain story — from crop to cup — of Orang Utan, a single-origin coffee with a mission to save the rapidly declining rainforest habitat of the Sumatran orangutan. By simply scanning an on-pack QR code with their mobile phone, consumers are taken to the Thank My Farmer platform where they can view a dynamic map of where their coffee is grown, roasted and exported and have the opportunity to donate to support the farmers and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme.

We believe that by giving consumers and retailers a trusted and accurate means to trace their coffee back to its farm of origin and allowing them to connect with the farmer through a financial donation, they will be more inclined to buy sustainably. And by raising consumer expectations of what companies can deliver, the bar will be raised higher for sustainability across the industry.

Putting coffee farmers on the map

Farmers themselves tell me they are happy with this innovation. They see the Thank My Farmer platform as a great way to present themselves and feel they are being put on the global map. They also appreciate the recognition, both in terms of visibility and the extra money from donations. They say they have always been curious about where their coffee ends up, and that it is gratifying for them to see that consumers are interested in finding the origin of their coffee and in supporting them.

Embarking on this project, it was important for UCC Coffee to work with the right partners. We fully align with farmer connect’s vision to “humanise consumption through technology.” And their use of the same state-of-the-art IBM Blockchain technology as IBM Food Trust was a clear sign of efficiency and trustworthiness.

It’s still early days for this development but I am certain of a promising future. We are exploring next steps to use blockchain to further benefit coffee farmers, customers and our environment. From here, anything can happen but one thing’s for certain: IBM Blockchain brings credibility and trust to the new generation of sustainable coffee.

Orang Utan Coffee is licensed and distributed in the UK by UCC Coffee UK & Ireland.

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