Coffee value chain, meet the blockchain: cryptocurrency technology shows promise for the world’s favorite commodity

Coffee value chain, meet the blockchain: cryptocurrency technology shows promise for the world’s favorite commodity

Everyone in the coffee industry craves information, perhaps even more than a morning jolt of caffeine. Across Uganda – one of the world’s top ten coffee producers – scientists, producers, industry, and the government collect data on coffee production. They do this to obtain valuable information, ranging from yield and prices to weather impacts and disease, and hopefully reduce risk in the process.

But data collection operations often overlap, which is inefficient, and the way people collect data cannot always be easily compared, which complicates aggregating data from different sources into meaningful information.

“The lack of interoperability of all data and services is part of what we call the paradox of digital extension,” says Anton Eitzinger, a climate and data scientist at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT). “But this data has the potential to benefit everyone in the coffee industry, from smallholder consumers in Africa to consumers in markets on the other side of the globe, still its full potential will only come when it’s fully interoperable.”

To solve this issue, Eitzinger and colleagues suggest that data collectors adopt blockchain technology, the same technology that underpins trade cryptocurrency, the most famous of which is bitcoin.

For cryptocurrencies, blockchain acts as a public transaction ledger, which bypasses the need for a central server or trusted authority. In the case of cryptocurrencies, blockchains bypass a centralized banking system. This is possible because blockchain records are practically unalterable, and transactions are recorded on servers around the globe.

In real-currency terms, cryptocurrencies were worth more than $850 billion dollars by 2018, one decade after their debut.

Now imagine what blockchain could do for the world’s second most valuable commodity: coffee.

Loading the Metrix

Eitzinger and colleagues are proposing a coffee blockchain for Uganda. Called the Metrix, the blockchain ledger would log metadata of data collected by buyers, sellers, researchers, and government institutions. The data would be available within a permissioned private network, and, everyone who is part of the network can use and contribute to the platform.

“All participants benefit from being part of this data collective,” says Eitzinger. “The system can also be used to explore metadata of existing data in the Ugandan coffee sector.”

The system would use common data analytics that is defined by scientific and academic partners, providing new insights, such as risk indicators. This will be drawn from the data for all nodes at a spatially-aggregated level, and for each node as single-data provider, at the single-data level (to the own data).

The idea of creating a shared data environment is not new, though Eitzinger points out that many initiatives of data sharing portals and collaborations have risen and failed in the past. The primary problems are technical and governance issues surrounding centralized databases, data interoperability, data privacy, trust, and competitiveness, among others. The Metrix has the potential to overcome these obstacles.

Together with Metajua, a company in Uganda that provides supply chain management solutions to connect coffee cooperatives and farmers to export markets, Z_GIS – a Centre of Competence for Geoinformatics at the University of Salzburg – and a blockchain entrepreneur that also runs a coffee roaster in Italy, scientists at CIAT will soon present a technical concept paper and prototype for the Metrix.

The system they propose builds on Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) to deploy a permissioned blockchain, where members can share data and access spatially explicit risk indicator profiles.

Stimulate data sharing, reduce risk

The Metrix would incentivize data sharing because the collected data would be used to create new risk indicators for the coffee industry, which could be an especially powerful tool for investment and management practices in Uganda.

Just as blockchain does for cryptocurrencies, the Metrix would move data management away from a centralized data management hub. Everyone interested in the state of the coffee industry, based on the Metrix’s data, could access the ledger directly on their own computers, which would also facilitate data analysis in addition to the risk indicator.

“We aim to stimulate data sharing among coffee supply chain actors who are collecting data about farmers,” said Eitzinger. “And all this connected data would be a benefit for everyone in the value chain. That’s what interoperability would ideally be between the data collection systems.”

By bringing together data from the private sector, non-for-profit organizations, research projects, and governmental institutions, monitoring systems could develop spatially tiled smart metrics for the supply side of the value chain. This would incentivize risk-sharing and innovations around the development of unique farmer services.

The Metrix addresses this fundamental problem: how to construct a framework of trust that links risk profiles with integrated value-added services, while providing cost-effective and transparent transaction of data and information.

How does the Metrix work?

  1. Multiple stakeholders connect their data servers to the permissioned blockchain (the Metrix).
  2. Matching data-values will be extracted and geohashed (assigned to tiles), and sent to authorized nodes for executing the chain-code (a script that is embedded in the blockchain).
  3. The Chaincode-nodes calculate the spatial risk indicators and validate them among them.
  4. After validation, the created Spatial-Risk Profiles are created/updated/deleted in the blockchain as an immutable, sequenced record of a new block.
  5. Risk profiles are available to authorized network nodes.

This ongoing work is funded by the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA), a joint institution operating under the framework of the Cotonou Agreement between the ACP Group of States (Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific) and the EU Member States (European Union).