Ethiopian tech meets coffee
On a field trip through the NTF V programme, five Ethiopian tech companies met with farmers to look at finding digital solutions to help get certified organic coffee into new global markets.
Erkeyihun W/giorgis works with 45,000 coffee farmers in Ethiopia, where the crop was first harvested centuries ago.
Even though Ethiopia is renowned as the birthplace of coffee, the members of the Yirgacheffe Coffee Farmers Cooperative Union face particularly modern challenges in selling their products internationally.
Most of the farmers are smallholders, often working one hectare or less of land. They pride themselves on their organic farming, but to be certified as organic for export purposes, W/giorgis said that Yirgacheffe needs to trace each batch of coffee beans to the farmer that produced it.
That’s a huge challenge, because the beans are mixed together and then sorted by quality. This helps the farmers earn more money for their work,but makes tracing the beans difficult.
“Now the demand is growing for organic coffee, so they want to track to the household level,” he said. “They want to track which coffee has been collected from which home at a specific day and time. Even the washing station used must be recorded. For that we need a digital solution.”
Finding digital solutions to support coffee farming is a key mission of the Netherlands Trust Fund V (NTF V) programme in Ethiopia.
Under the International Trade Centre (ITC), the programme links farmers to Ethiopian tech companies that can propose solutions.
But sometimes, tech experts have never set foot on a farm. So the NTF V team brought five companies to visit two of Yirgacheffe’s cooperatives in January.
Over two and a half days at the Adamegabote and Hufrsa, the companies met with co-op leaders and union board members, who are all also farmers.
That gave Yirgacheffe the chance to explain the full range of their digital needs, from upgrading their website to making their contracts paperless.
Digital solutions to trace coffee to its origin
To solve the traceability issue, Yirgacheffe has been sending workers to register each of the thousands of cooperative members. It’s incredibly labour-intensive, and doesn’t provide a way to manage the reams of data that they collect.
During the field trip, the five Ethiopian tech company presented their digital solution. One of them, Lersha, proposed a a mobile app that would work on the farmers’ phones to gather daily, weekly, and monthly data about the coffee harvested and where it was washed. Farmers would also receive weather and other climate data to help them with their work.
“The market has been demanding traceability of organic coffee, so Yirgacheffe weren’t able to get to different markets in Europe and America,” said Abdelah Nasir, an agronomist at Lersha.
“We have proposed to resolve the traceability issue, with a report compiling system for all the members to see which primary cooperative union is buying how much, and where.”
For the NTF V tech start-ups, the field trip to the farms was an essential step in understanding the needs on the ground.
“That was the main thing that contributed for us to understand what they are asking for, what they are lacking, what services they are using and to truly see what they needed,” Nasir said.
For the farmers, the visit also ensured that they were communicating their needs clearly to tech teams.
“When they come to us, the impression they had before was different,” said W/giorgis. “When they come, they have an idea of what is happening on the ground. When we were together, they had a chance to see the gaps, because we have shown them what we have been doing.”
Following the field trip, the companies submitted proposals with practical solutions to the challenges they identified while visiting the coffee farms. Each proposal was reviewed and the company interviewed in collaboration with Dutch organization BOP Inc., which supports small businesses that serve low-income consumers.
Then on 17 March 2023, a matchmaking event was conducted between the selected tech companies and farmers unions during the AgriTech for Food Security and Job Creation event hosted by NTF V, in partnership with Orbit Innovation in Addis Ababa.
The matchmaking event will likely lead to business between tech companies and the coffee farmers unions. The outcomes of the event will be announced soon.
About the project
The Netherlands Trust Fund V (NTF) (July 2021 – June 2025) is based on a partnership between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of The Netherlands and the International Trade Centre. The programme supports MSMEs in the digital technologies and agribusiness sectors. Its ambition is two-fold: to contribute to an inclusive and sustainable transformation of food systems, partially through digital solutions, and drive the internationalization of tech start-ups and export of IT&BPO companies in selected Sub-Saharan African countries.