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UC Berkeley Students Design Information Management Tools For Coffee Farmers

Graduate students at the UC Berkeley School of Information have designed information-management tools designed specifically for coffee farm managers in developing countries.

Ariel Chait and Paul Goodman, both second-year Master of Information Management Systems students, along with Berkeley MBA student Iris Shim, have founded the social venture Acopio (which means “harvest” in Spanish) to help farmers move away from paper systems to make their ventures more profitable. The group acknowledges that cooperatives and other support networks exist for rural farmers, but suggests software that doesn’t require constant connectivity to the Internet may provide a missing link.

The Acopio software helps track details about the coffee growers’ harvests and business transactions, replacing a hodgepodge of paper-based records and countless handwritten receipts. The software runs on PCs and mobile phones, and the team has designed a data workflow that does not rely on connectivity, as Internet connectivity is often unreliable in the locations where the coffee growers work.

Pilot Test With Nicaraguan Coffee Growers

Photo courtesy UC Berkeley School of Information Systems

The Coomprocom coffee cooperative in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, used a prototype of the Acopio software to track all of its activities for the 2011–2012 coffee harvest. The cooperative includes 178 local coffee growers who work together to sell their coffee beans to wholesalers and roasters; by combining forces, they can achieve economies of scale and bypass intermediaries through direct sales to buyers.

With the coffee growing season now drawing to a close, the Acopio team has begun reviewing the results of the pilot test. Despite the technical limitations of the prototype, the responses have been overwhelmingly positive. “The growers are excited by the possibility of Acopio providing the foundation for their data management for future harvest seasons,” said Chait.

“Going into the pilot test, we were optimistic that this tool could be useful, but we were also really aware of the contextual challenges,” said Goodman. “In Nicaragua, we found that we were able to deploy incredibly low-cost technology, get it up and running in a matter of days, and see results immediately. The pilot test validated our concept, and proved that Acopio is something that we should take to the next level.”

The Acopio Solution

Acopio’s information systems give the growers the tools they need to improve their operational efficiency and manage high-volume operations, as well as building data-driven relationships with roasters and retailers, including specialty markets.

The Coomprocom cooperative sells their beans to a number of fair-trade and organic coffee companies. In order to certify their beans as fair trade and organic, the cooperative must provide extensive documentation of their growing practices and financial transactions. Acopio also helps growers solve this problem.

Up-to-date data about harvests and operations are also important to financiers and banks who invest in the coffee cooperatives. “The data transparency that we’re trying to achieve will help these cooperatives get loans and lower their interest rates,” explained Goodman. “Increased financing will make it possible for the growers to invest in their infrastructure, build out their facilities, and gain some stability in the volatile coffee market.”

Future Plans

Goodman and Chait recently visited Chiapas, Mexico, to participate in the annual meeting of CoopSol, where small-scale coffee producers from around Latin America meet with the roasters and retailers to talk about the current state of fair trade, best practices in fair trade, and organic coffee production.

At the meeting, the two were able to discuss the project and get feedback from leading coffee growers, roasters, and importers. Coffee cooperatives in Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru are already interested in partnering with Acopio, and the team hopes to launch two new pilot tests by Fall 2012.

Goodman, Chait, and Shim are all completing their master’s degrees this May, and are planning to continue full-time business and software development into the summer.

Down the road, the team believes that the Acopio model could be expanded to other crops, as well. Technology like Acopio’s could help producers and importers comply with the new Food Safety Modernization Act, which is scheduled to take effect in May; the law will require food importers to be able to trace the food back to its source. Acopio’s data transparency and access also resonate with the Farm-to-Table movement, which is concerned with food source information.

Paul Goodman believes that Acopio can provide a new model for international development. “A lot the models for helping small businesses in the developing world are donor-driven models. But this is an area where we’ve identified a business need, with a business opportunity,” said Goodman. “We feel that this has the potential to change our approach to development in ways that are just not possible through donor-driven aid.”

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