Small-scale coffee growers in the mountains of southern Colombia are capable farmers. They dream of better ways of growing their coffee and profiting from the increasing demand for specialty products. Thomas Oberthür explains how farmers, scientists, food processors and retailers are working together to develop high-quality that will fetch high market prices.
The farmers are continually searching for new farm management techniques and are prepared to try out any innovation that seems promising. Yet, because coffee prices locally are low, their incomes continue to fall and no one seems able to help them secure niche markets with high returns.
The Diversification Agriculture Project Alliance (DAPA) is a public-private research partnership, led by CIAT. In DAPA, small-scale producers of highvalue crops, such as specialty coffees and medicinal plants, are collaborating with scientists, food processors and retailers. Together they aim to develop sophisticated ways of managing the agricultural product supply chain, and to develop products with exclusive qualities that will be capable of fetching premium market prices.
DAPA aims at identifying the precise environmental conditions farmers need to grow quality crops that meet specific consumer preferences. DAPA faces two major challenges, however. First, farmers are largely unaware of the unique qualities that can be added to their products by the customized management of the environmental conditions under which they grow their crops. Second, they have insufficient knowledge about consumer preferences.
DAPA is addressing these problems using a three-step approach. First, the causal relationships between the quality of selected agricultural products and environmental factors are demonstrated. Then, using a process control approach, the most important factors that determine product quality are identified. Third, information and tools are provided to help generate and analyze information about agronomic conditions and product processing methods so that supply chain participants can benefit from the causal relationships between environmental factors and product qualities.
In the case of specialty coffee production, DAPA started by collecting on-farm samples using a purpose-built mobile processing unit. Five kilograms of coffee cherries were harvested at ideal maturity. They were then wet-processed, gas oven-dried and stored in a controlled environment. DAPA’s industry partners - which include Intelligentsia Coffees (Chicago), Virmax (Bogota) and Coffee Star (Berlin) - cup the samples and test their specific qualities. In addition, corresponding control samples are collected and processed and cupped using the growers’ traditional methods. With these pairs of samples, CIAT scientists are able to identify precisely the impact of environmental factors on quality, and conduct farm quality gap analyses of potential quality against the actual quality achieved.
In the second step, DAPA and the farmers identify the most important production factors that determine the quality of their produce. DAPA has adopted the process control approach used in the industry to ensure minimum variability in product quality. This approach is based on the premise that the variability in product quality is due to just a few factors. The challenge is to identify and manage these factors in a way that suits consumer preferences.
For example, the taste of a specialty coffee depends on the site’s exposure to the sun. Berries from fields with different exposures are then harvested, processed and cupped separately. The cupping results are analyzed and in the next growing cycle, the selection of fields is tightened so that the only berries harvested are those with taste characteristics that meet market preferences. Repeated cycles of sampling, interpretation and evaluation eventually lead to the selection of fi elds with the type of exposure that produces coffee with the degree of quality variation acceptable to particular markets.
As the third step, DAPA has developed CinfO, a web-based information management tool that can be used by all supply chain participants to search for detailed product information. For example, the screenshot on page 2 (centre) shows the locations of farms of members of the Huila coff ee growers’ association who are participating in the DAPA initiative. Information about the environmental and production conditions on their farms can be called up and analyzed by all partners in the supply chain. Users can search for specific qualities, information about successful production practices, and engage in dialogue with other participants in the chain.
The DAPA approach can only succeed if all participants in the supply chain are involved. Farmers and scientists contribute information about the production characteristics of crops, and processors and retailers share information on product quality and market preferences. For example, a local producer association provides coff ee samples from a large number of farms that have been geo-referenced and environmentally characterized by CIAT staff . Specialty coffee roasters and exporters analyze the quality of the samples. CIAT scientists then correlate product information with onfarm environmental and production conditions. The results of these analyses are then made available online through DAPA’s information system.
By the end of the three-year DAPA project in 2007, it is hoped that the approach will have been refined to the point where farmers themselves can use it to produce the high-quality coffees preferred by consumers, and which fetch the highest prices.
Dr Thomas Oberthür ( ) is researcher at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), Cali, Columbia. DAPA is supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (GTZ).