Beyond baristas: the tech that solved the coffee crisis

a toppled cup spilling coffee beans serving as a symbol of the coffee crisis

Across the world, we drink 2.25 billion cups of coffee per day. That’s almost one-a-day for every three people on earth. Yet we know very little about the journey coffee takes before it arrives through the backdoor of our local Starbucks.

A range of high tech developments allow our countless coffee chains to keep thriving. But at one point, the fate of these chain stores hung in the balance, and it took a particularly innovative blend of technology, innovation, and cooperation to save them.

These days, coffee is so abundant, so readily available at all times, that we might be shocked to read that the behind-the-scenes of the coffee trade is as complex as the Large Hadron Collider. This is the story of the tech that solved the coffee crisis.

Crisis, what crisis?

To the average caffeine consumer, the stream of coffee has been consistent and plentiful for decades. A skinny latte from Starbucks tastes like a skinny latte from Starbucks whenever and wherever you buy it. Despite this, there is often turbulence behind-the-scenes of the delicate coffee ecosystem.

While coffee drinkers frazzled in ignorant bliss, it was the coffee growers who first caught sight of the problem. Powdery yellow legions began to appear on the underside of coffee plant leaves all over South America — home to the most active coffee plantations. The plants started to die. This disease became known as “coffee rust” and it was relatively common in many coffee plantations throughout the early 2000s, but it was mostly kept under control through quarantining infected plants.

As we reached the mid-2010s, it started to spiral out of control. Coffee rust spread to infect many plantations throughout Central and South America, hitting Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil the hardest. Guatemala lost 70% of their 2013 crop to coffee rust. To cover their losses, the coffee farmers in these countries — many of whom supply both large multinational chains and independent coffee houses — had to raise their prices.

The rust outbreak came about as part of a long-term drought in these areas, which in turn led Starbucks to stop buying coffee beans due to the increased prices in 2014. At this point, coffee rust was threatening farmers livelihoods, coffee chains’ profits, and coffee drinkers’ ability to function in the mornings. Luckily, tech had the answer. The answer was in the sky.

How satellites saved coffee farmers

For years, the primary method of controlling coffee rust was quarantining — separating infected plants from others. But coffee farmers also engaged in “cultural management” in an attempt to root out infection at the source.

By planting new crops in areas of healthy soil, the likelihood of coffee rust is greatly reduced. The only problem is the difficulty of assessing the quality of soil for the large swathes of land that coffee farmers plant on. To accurately assess the soil, farmers need to look from another perspective. That perspective can be achieved by satellites.

In an article on improving coffee crop yield, Earth observation experts Earth-i have discussed how very high resolution satellite imagery, combined with remote sensing data from the ground, brings us the most modern method of planting and growing plants available. Known as precision agriculture, this combination of technology creates colour-coded aerial maps that show farmers the best and worst places to lay their crops every season so farmers can increase yield. It’s used widely by farmers in well-off countries, but in developing nations like those who export the most coffee, it is far less common. Or at least it was.

As the coffee rust crisis worsened, companies began to offer apps to local coffee growers that would give them access to accurate soil maps collected via satellite. Earth-i and WeatherSafe set up the Accord project to help make the software more accessible to these farmers. Now, farmers in South and Central America, as well as in African coffee-exporting nations such as Rwanda, have literal guide maps for avoiding coffee rust in the palms of their hands.

This solution could never have come about if it wasn’t for the help of a software giant whose operations are often even more obscure than the behind the scenes of the coffee industry.

How SAP connected the dots

SAP is the name of both a tech company and the software they created. In simple terms, SAP is a software to enable databases to stay constantly updated by several users in different departments of a company. Its applications are continuing to grow increasingly sophisticated, as this article on SAP and the Internet of things shows.

In the case of combatting coffee rust, SAP makes sure the satellite imagery on the farmers’ devices is fully accurate, taking on board any sudden changes in weather or soil calibre, and giving farmers the information they need to navigate it.

SAP themselves teamed up with the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNC) to create bespoke software that not only warns farmers about how to avoid coffee rust, bus also informs them about quantities of coffee they have sold, all from one central location. This helped increase the quality of the coffee they are exporting once and again, and streamline their business process more than ever.

What about Starbucks?

Notably absent from the story of this recovery are the coffee chains that led to the mass expansion of these coffee plantations in the first place. But that doesn’t mean they did nothing. In 2014 Starbucks pledged $23 million to fight coffee rust in a joint initiative with the US Agency of International Development. They also launched a plan to plant 15 million coffee trees in their “One Tree for Every Bag” scheme, which thanks to the new planning techniques will be less likely to be affected by coffee rust.

With technology-driven solutions like the satellite-SAP hybrid, and green initiatives like planting more trees, the coffee trade can continue to thrive without crisis, and bring us our daily fix forever.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

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