Greener beans: IBM and Farmer Connect unveil blockchain-powered app to boost coffee traceability
07 Jan 2020 --- IBM and Farmer Connect have harnessed the power of blockchain in the partnership’s latest unveiling of a mobile app designed to raise traceability, efficiency and fairness across the global coffee supply chain. The “Thank My Farmer” app provides coffee drinkers with information about their beverage’s quality and origin, while also providing an opportunity to support the farmer who grew the beans. Information directly pulled from IBM’s blockchain technology is presented on an interactive map on the consumer-facing platform, allowing each product to tell its story in a “simple and scalable” way.
Given that consumers today are increasingly interested in ingredient provenance and sourcing practices, Thank My Farmer is tapping into the industry-wide trend of brand storytelling that is pegged by Innova Market Insights as a Top Trend for 2020. According to Lu Ann Williams, Director of Innovation at Innova Market Insights, storytelling is “absolutely critical” for market success this year.
“The aim is to humanize each coffee drinker’s relationship with their daily cup,” says David Behrends, Founder and President of Farmer Connect. “Consumers can now play an active role in sustainability governance by supporting coffee farmers in developing nations. Through the blockchain and this consumer app, we’re creating a virtuous cycle.”
According to IBM, coffee drinkers today consume more than half a trillion cups per year. As many as two-thirds of consumers aged 19 to 24 surveyed by the company say they prefer to buy coffee that is sustainably grown and responsibly sourced. Despite progress by international certifying bodies, however, there remains a dearth of knowledge around the need for coffee farmers to earn a sufficient living for bringing their product to market.
The large scale of the global coffee supply chain makes traceability in this sector particularly difficult. Once grown, beans make several stops, including at coops, exporters, shippers, importers, roasters, distributors and retailers before finally reaching the consumer. Each participant in this complex system tracks only their small segment of the journey and each uses its own system to log data. IBM points out that this means that information about the product is usually fragmented.
Following the launch of the app set for the beginning of this year, users in the US and Canada will be able to scan QR codes on 1850 premium single-origin coffee brands. European consumers will be able to access the “Thank My Farmer” app through a new single-origin brand, Beyers 1769, roasted at Beyers Koffie.
As the app expands throughout 2020, IBM notes large and small companies will be invited to join and coffee drinkers will be able to support the communities where their coffee is grown by funding local projects. Farmer Connect is currently incorporating self-sovereign identity (SSI), a digital movement developed in collaboration with the Sovrin Foundation that recognizes an individual should own and control their identity without the intervening administrative authorities. This is expected to help close the loop on a circular economy to further enhance smallholder livelihoods while delivering transparency and a better experience for the consumer.
“This project is another example of how blockchain technology can enable a channel for real change. Blockchain is more than aspirational business tech, it is used today to transform how people can build trust in the goods they consume. For business, it can drive greater transparency and efficiency,” concludes Raj Rao, General Manager at IBM Food Trust.
Developed with large companies across the global supply chain including Beyers Koffie, The Colombian Coffee Growers Federation (FNC), ITOCHU Corporation, Jacobs Douwe Egberts (JDE), The J.M. Smucker Company, Rabobank, RGC Coffee, Volcafe, Sucafina and Yara International.
Banking on blockchain
Blockchain technology brings together all supply chain parties, simplifying the exchange and tracking of information and payments, as well as enabling greater trust. It creates a permanent digitized chain of transactions that cannot be altered. Each network participant has an exact copy of the data and additions to the blockchain are shared throughout the network based on each participant’s level of permission.
IBM underscores that farmers, wholesalers, traders and retailers can interact more efficiently using “comprehensive, near real-time” access to this data and consumers can have new insights about the origins of the products they consume. Last year, the information technology giant teamed up with Nestlé and Carrefour to give consumers the ability to access information from the first blockchain on a national brand in Europe. Carrefour was one of the founding members to join the IBM Food Trust blockchain network in October 2018.
Last October, French dairy cooperative Ingredia, in partnership with food transparency blockchain specialist Connecting Food, unveiled what are marketed as “the first dairy ingredients to be certified, traced and audited in real time.”
In September, Australia-based OpenSC raised US$4 million in seed funding, advancing its blockchain-powered platform aimed at promoting transparency in food products known to have significant environmental or social injustice risks within their supply chains.
Similarly, Walmart has employed blockchain to track lettuce and spinach across its supply chain. The move was aimed at seriously ramping up food safety following last year’s US outbreaks of E. coli in Romaine lettuce and salmonella in a number of products from eggs to breakfast cereal.
Although increasingly in pegged as an effective approach to bending the curve on the loss of biodiversity and other sourcing malpractices, blockchain is not without its limitations. The most notable challenge facing blockchain in its adoption in food across the chain is arguably its novelty, as highlighted by Raja Ramachandran, Co-Founder of ripe.io, in an exclusive interview with FoodIngredientsFirst.
By Benjamin Ferrer
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