by Meriwether Hardie*
“What do the people who drink my coffee in the US look like? Why do they care about the Rainforest Alliance seal? What do they know about my life? Can I write to them?” asks Avimael Leiva Mérida.
Leiva is responding to a question I just posed at a meeting of Rainforest Alliance certified coffee farmers in Huehuetenango, the highlands of western Guatemala. My question was this: “If you could ask anyone in the world questions about coffee, what would you ask?”
“I want to know what prices farmers in other countries receive for their coffee,” Lucio López, another farmer, says. “Also, what are their tips for growing high quality coffee and receiving good prices?”
“I know that there are bad droughts in Colombia. What are farmers doing, do they have good solutions?” asks Lucia Putul.
Smallholder farmers such as those gathered here this afternoon are among the most important players in the agricultural supply chain—and yet, due to barriers of language, literacy and technology, they also tend to be the most disconnected players in that group. They have no way to regularly share information or ask each other’s advice; nor can they contact other players in the marketplace. Most have only their cooperatives and annual trainings to rely on for information, but these services don’t begin to meet farmers’ daily needs. Such isolation puts farmers at a disadvantage in learning new farming techniques, selling products, refining water or soil conservation practices or managing crop diseases.
But now, thanks to the Rainforest Alliance’s exciting, innovative communication pilot project, the farmers at this community meeting will have the opportunity to connect with fellow farmers—and eventually, with other players in the supply chain. Not only that, but information on everything from sustainable farming techniques to business strategies will soon be just a tap, click or swipe away.
Because smart devices and tablets are still somewhat uncommon in this rural area, the Rainforest Alliance has devised a remarkably effective way to provide access to information immediately: The pilot has selected 25 lead farmers (ages 22 to 60) to receive simple tablets or smartphone devices; the leads in turn share the app with peers and lead training sessions in their communities each month. Lead farmers also collect questions and photos of best practices, and upload them to the application every few weeks. Rainforest Alliance reviews the photos and posts the best examples on the application, and also answers questions. As access to service and technology increases—which is happening rapidly—this exchange of information will occur on a more regular basis. Since the project is still a pilot, lead farmers also provide Rainforest Alliance with feedback on the app to help improve the tool and add materials that are valuable to farmers.
The Rainforest Alliance worked with Dimagi, a privately held social enterprise, to tailor the app, called Commcare, to these farmers’ needs. For example, once downloaded, the application runs offline—making it more useful to those may not have continuous access to the internet. Similarly, in order to reach farmers of all literacy levels, the platform favors visual messaging, displaying Rainforest Alliance videos, photos, and voice audio on topics including financial literacy, market information and best management practices. Most importantly, the application will help build a network of farmers who can learn from each other.
While the pilot program is starting with farmers, it will eventually extend to companies, providing on-the-ground stories and data about producers that demonstrate to businesses the benefits of sourcing commitments; the app could also offer real-time information about production issues. We hope to create a way for consumers to interact with the platform, too, and to learn more about the stories and people behind their coffee.
We believe that providing small-scale producers with tools, education, and information to address changing climates, volatile markets and other challenges is essential in securing their future livelihoods and our global food supply. With this innovative use of mobile technology, we will be able to bring smallholder farmers—both within and outside the Rainforest Alliance network—more information on best agricultural management practices and commodity markets so that they can increase their sustainability, adapt to climate change and become more competitive.
*Rainforest Alliance Senior Associate of Special Initiatives Meriwether Hardie is the manager of this pilot project. She is currently focused on providing the application to more farmers and to other supply chain partners in order to promote information exchanges and peer-to-peer learning. The project will continue in Guatemala, and we are looking to scale it next to other crops and countries.