A standard system

Specialised software improves efficiency of farm inspection process in Mexico

Yael Schwartzman, Tapan S. Parikh & Mario Vila

The Coffee Growers Association of Oaxaca in Mexico uses DigitalICS, a specially developed software program, to help farmers improve the quality of their coffee. Inspectors use cell phones to gather data, which are then posted to password-protected web pages.

Over the last few decades, small-scale coffee farmers have struggled to increase incomes from their crop. In that time, while worldwide coffee production has increased, prices for the commodity have decreased. But small-scale producers can gain an advantage in such competitive markets by highlighting their specialised production techniques. Farmers can, for example, promote the unique features of their geographic location, or publicise the social impact of improved incomes in their community.

In order to promote the uniqueness of their product, many producers apply for certification, where a third party ensures that the farmers follow socially and environmentally beneficial practices, and offers the farmer a basic minimum price for the sale of the certified product. One example is farmers adopting new sustainable growing practices, and using certification to draw attention to the superior quality of their product.

Certification can be awarded to coffee growers who meet standards of organic production, shade-grown production (where native shade trees are retained on coffee plantations to prevent sun damage and soil erosion) and fair-trade, which improves the status of marginalised producers by promoting consumer awareness.

Farmers have to meet a rigorous set of criteria before their products can be certified. There is often an initial training phase, where farmers learn how to meet the new standards and convert their growing practices and farms to suit the required processes. This can take up to three years for organic farming.

Many smallholders therefore form cooperatives. Closer collaboration can help farmers to reduce transaction costs, manage quality, increase market access, become engaged in policy discussions and access the training and technical advice necessary for certification.

Struggles

A cooperative often has an internal control department. This body is responsible for inspecting each member’s land and equipment to ensure they meet the required standards, both for external certification processes and for the cooperative’s own quality assurances. Internal inspections are carried out by trained inspectors, usually by staff of the cooperative or other experienced farmers. If the inspectors discover any problems, they can advise the farmer on how to get back up to standard or, for repeated violations, sanction or expel them.
A cooperative’s internal control manager aggregates the inspection data to create a record for each farmer, and to prepare yearly reports for the external certification agencies. Data can also be used for operational purposes, such as forecasting the next harvest or providing targeted advice and feedback to farmers. Internal control is a costly, labour-intensive process, consisting of manual data collection, entry, analysis and reporting. In many cooperatives, these processes are not yet automated (or even standardised), making them error-prone and in need of significant manual effort.
The Coffee Growers Association of Oaxaca (CEPCO) currently works with 33 smaller organisations across the state of Oaxaca, covering a total of 2760 producers, 90% of whom own less than two hectares of land. CEPCO’s coffee is certified as organic and fair-trade. They employ 30 trained internal inspectors to perform yearly inspections and 17 extension agents to train farmers in organic practices. All of their inspectors and extension workers are experienced coffee producers.

To improve the efficiency of their certification and inspection processes, CEPCO introduced a new system that uses software called DigitalICS. The program, developed by researchers at University of California, Berkeley, in the USA, automates many of the procedures previously conducted manually and enables mobile data collection, evaluation and reporting.

CEPCO inspectors used to fill out forms by hand, which was inefficient and very difficult to do practically on the steep slopes of coffee plantations. Inspectors had to reach flatter ground before they could fill out the form, which meant they could forget important details. Data was also lost as dirt or rain obscured the written notes, or illegible handwriting made them difficult to read.

Evaluators reviewed paper-based inspection reports by hand, reviewing and cross-checking up to six different documents, again requiring significant manual effort. It took several hours to organise these documents before they could begin the evaluation. They commonly found discrepancies between documents that took yet more time to correct, providing the original data was even available or legible.

Equitable

DigitalICS was developed specifically for agricultural cooperatives, and is the first such open-source system to support mobile data collection. With the program installed on cell phones, CEPCO’s inspectors can now complete surveys in the field by entering data into their phones rather than onto paper forms. The application prompts inspectors through every step of the survey process, with both text and audio. The latter option compensates for the small screen on the phone, and helps farmers with literacy problems to follow the process. The cooperative can easily customise the surveys to suit new conditions or different languages.

The survey questions usually have multiple choice answers, but inspectors can use the phone to record an audio comment to any question, giving the farmer the opportunity to add more information. Inspectors can also capture images to visually document breaches of certification and quality requirements. This reduces the opportunity for producers to claim that they were treated unfairly.

Inspectors are required to photograph the producer on the coffee plantation, and the producer signing the inspection ledger, as proof they actually visited the farm. The inspectors are also required to make an audio recording of the recommendations they made to the farmer. And, in instances where a fair-trade premium has been paid, the inspector can record comments about how the community is using the extra income for social improvements.

DigitalICS provides a feedback mechanism for producers and inspectors to send an audio message back to CEPCO on any related cooperative business, or even to send suggestions to the software developers on how to improve the technology.

All captured data, audio and photographs are stored on the phone’s external memory card. After completing their surveys, inspectors go back to CEPCO’s head office and transfer the files from the cell phone’s memory card to the DigitalICS program on the office computer. Limited wireless coverage in the areas where coffee is grown means that data cannot be transmitted directly from the field.

However, such immediate data communication is not necessary; inspectors have to return to the office anyway to discuss their observations with the internal control manager. Also, sending photos and audio files over the cell phone network is more expensive than simple SMS messages and would, therefore, increase the cost.
After data is transferred to the computers, the software processes the results and posts them to a password-protected website using Wordpress, a blog-publishing application. Each post is automatically tagged with a unique code referring to each producer. Users can log in to access the data relating to an individual farm. Evaluators, for example, log in to review the inspection data (including pictures and audio) and enter their recommendations. The software automatically generates the evaluation reports, including all data and recommendations from the completed inspection forms, which the evaluators can print out.

Each farmer receives a document that includes all inspection data, follow-up advice and evaluation results. A single spreadsheet document summarises the inputs used, evaluation outcomes and follow-up comments for the entire cooperative. The cooperative uses the reports for internal control, making supply predictions, preparing funding proposals and for reporting to the certification agencies.

Content

CEPCO initially tested DigitalICS over a six-month pilot period, starting in June 2008, to inspect half of their producers in the course of the normal internal control cycle. The other half continued to use the previous paper-based system. The application’s developers trained six inspectors over a two-day period.

A comparison with the 2007 data, collected using paper forms, showed that it was 38% faster to perform one inspection using DigitalICS and 69% faster to perform one evaluation, due to the reduction in time-consuming manual paperwork. Instead, all the data was entered only once in the field, and automatically transferred and consolidated for evaluation and reporting. (The reduction in inspection time is less significant, since much of the inspectors’ time is taken up with walking from one plantation to another.)

Preliminary estimates indicate that DigitalICS could save CEPCO more than US$10,000 a year by reducing the time taken for evaluation, inspection and manual data entry, and from printing and stationary costs. Allowing for the investment in software development, the purchase of 10 cell phones (at US$340 each), hardware, and operating expenses, including web hosting, technical support and hardware maintenance (totalling US$600 a year), the costs of installing DigitalICS could be recouped within the first year.

Feedback

The evaluators were especially happy with the increased efficiency provided by the automated system. They had been frustrated at having to organise and sort through paper inspection reports and other related handwritten documents used in the previous system. Evaluators felt that the paper-based system led to more errors, due to the manual work required.

For the inspectors, they found that the phone was easier to carry than lots of paper forms. They complained that the phone battery ran out too quickly, but this was solved in some cases by taking a second battery. The inspectors were also concerned that they would be held responsible for any damage to or loss of the phone.

Many producers felt that data collection by cell phone was more secure than on a paper form that anyone could read. Farmers also mentioned that they liked that the inspectors took pictures of them and their crops, as it made them feel more responsible and respected for their work.
Evaluators mentioned that requiring images and audio recordings of producers increased the accountability of inspectors to actually visit the farms, and of producers to follow organic practices. One evaluator commented that it is easier to determine whether the internal inspector has cheated and not visited the coffee plantations.

While the current system still cannot ensure that inspectors actually visit coffee farms, this issue could be solved in the future by using GPS technology to determine the locations of the farms and the times of the inspectors’ visits. One other development would be to give inspectors access to the historical data of each of their farms directly from the cell phone. This would give them a better overview of each farms’ production and allow them to tailor their advice accordingly.

Making the data available online – together with audio, video and photos – could improve product marketing by providing a direct link between producers and consumers. Solar chargers could be used to charge phone batteries in the field, while refinements to the DigitalICS software could reduce its power use.

Replication

It should be noted that CEPCO’s earlier internal control system and procedures were already quite advanced, and have received significant external recognition and awards. Other cooperatives may benefit even more from the standardisation and automation provided by DigitalICS. But if the basic organisational and procedural structures are not in place, some cooperatives may not be able to introduce the system without substantial improvements to their current operations.

The cost analysis may be different for South Asia or Africa, where labour costs are much lower, reducing the financial benefit that can be obtained through efficiency gains. And, in countries where transportation between farms and the cooperatives’ offices is expensive, it might be more cost-effective to transmit inspection data via the cell phone network, if possible.

While DigitalICS saves money on a yearly basis, the system still requires technical support and maintenance for it to be sustainable. A local service provider would have to be willing to provide this service for a reasonable fee.

The availability of open-source software like DigitalICS greatly increases the opportunities for other cooperatives to introduce such a system. For CEPCO, the outcomes of the trial were so persuasive that they have extended the DigitalICS system to all their producers. The 2010 inspection cycle, beginning in June, will be their second consecutive year of using the software with 100% of their members.

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Yael Schwartzman is country manager of Frogtek in Mexico, Tapan S. Parikh is an assistant professor in the University of California’s School of Information, United States, and Mario Vila is internal control manager at the Coffee Growers Association of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Related resources:

Coffee Growers Association of Oaxaca
Website of the largest coffee growers’ cooperative in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico.
www.cepco.org.mx

DigitalICS
The website for the mobile application includes a video of a sample survey, sample inspection reports and a live demo.
http://digitalicslatino.org

Frogtek
A mobile applications development company involved with the development of DigitalICS.
http://frogtek.org

Tapan S. Parikh
DigitalICS researcher’s page at University of California, Berkeley.
http://www.ischool.berkeley.edu/~parikh

22 June 2010

Copyright © 2014, CTA. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (ACP-EU)