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Reimagining coffee for a New India

From the January 2018 issue.

The new CEO of the Coffee board of india is spearheading a technological and cultural revolution in his industry.

Srivatsa Krishna

When Srivatsa Krishna joined the Coffee Board of India as its CEO and Secretary earlier this year, he found he was running an organisation in a sector that had “a complete absence of technology”.

“As coffee and technology are both personal passions, I wondered how I could infuse more technology into coffee,” says Krishna, who is  a Harvard MBA and a member of the Indian Administrative Service, which is India’s senior government leadership cadre.

In the six months that Krishna has held the role, his questioning has led to an array of initiatives in every area of Indian coffee – from pest control to soil management; from traceability to using blockchain technology for contracts; from branding to automated advisory services, and much more. The technology in play includes artificial intelligence, apps, drones, voice response systems, and tablets for field officers. It is a comprehensive, data-driven approach that has the potential to bring about a rapid transformation in the way coffee is grown here. Krishna expects it will revolutionise India’s coffee sector, benefiting farmers, consumers, suppliers and roasters, as well as the Board and its employees. It ought also to boost the domestic and international profile of Indian coffee.

Project goals
The Board’s overall goal is that within ten years India will be one of the top three countries in the world when it comes to the production and productivity of coffee. Currently it sits in position six or seven, depending on the metrics.

“That said, we have moved up in overall productivity,” Krishna says, crediting the Central Coffee Research Institute, one of the best in Asia, for much of that improvement. “India will produce close to 984 kilograms per hectare in 2017-18, a huge jump from 567 kilograms per hectare in 1960.”

The amount of land under cultivation has also risen in that time, which accounts for the fact that India will produce just over 350,000 metric tonnes of coffee this year, versus around 68,000 in 1960.

“We can do better. Vietnam is producing Robusta at 2.4 tonnes per hectare, and Brazil produces Arabica at 1.4 tonnes per hectare, so we have to beat that,” he says. “But we have some problems unique to India, like white stem borer, and so for us to overcome all these hurdles will take, I think, easily five to 10 years.”

A linked goal is to improve the welfare of India’s coffee farmers: there are 350,000 coffee growers in India, Krishna says, and 98 per cent of them are small-growers.

“Indian coffee has an old world charm about it, and I want to preserve that but also infuse technology, which will make the lives of these small-growers much better,” he says, explaining that just five cents of a cup of coffee that sells for US$3-4 in New York or London goes to the farmer.

“So with these improvements, can I double that – or triple it?” he asks. “Can the farmer get 15 cents? If I can increase it three times in five years, that will be a huge improvement.”

That ambition matches government policy in terms of helping farmers and using technology, says Krishna, who references Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tenure in Gujarat State when its economy grew far faster than the country’s as a whole.

“Gujarat grew at 10 per cent for ten years, when the national average was only 2 or 3 per cent a year,” he says. “So we are trying to learn from that model and replicate it in coffee.”

Narendra Modi

Technology and pests
Among the most significant problems the Board’s array of technological solutions is targeting is that of the white stem borer, a pest that is hardly visible to the naked eye. US-based IPsoft, one of the world’s biggest artificial intelligence firms, is working to combat that, as is Eka, one of India’s leading agritech companies.

“We have sent them detailed images of various diseased and healthy coffee plants, and we are trying to see if, using artificial intelligence, we can use leaf-based images for disease identification to detect the white stem borer, which is unique to India and not there in any other coffee-growing area of the world,” he says.

Over the past decade, the white stem borer has destroyed around one-third of India’s Arabica coffee crop.

“And that’s huge. So the idea is, using technology, can we catch it at an early larval stage before it afflicts crops?” he says. “We want to see if IPsoft’s technology and Eka’s visual analytics can detect it.”

Alongside its work on pest control, Eka is developing an analytics app that will predict weather, using hundreds of years of climate data; the app will also provide data on water, soil and disease-pattern recognition to help farmers.

Hard digital solutions
Krishna’s first technological solution is a mobile app for the Board’s 200 field officers; it will launch in January and is designed to improve efficiencies internally.

“Our officers have to cover 350,000 growers, so they are overburdened,” he says. “But if I give them technology on a tablet their work becomes far easier when they go to a remote area, whether they are taking pictures of the location which is geo-tagged or whether they have to scan some documents and send it – all that is possible using our coffee app.”

The app will streamline their work in a variety of ways, not least in helping them provide advisory services more efficiently.

“Advisories are currently given in person – and that will continue – but a large part of this can also be given remotely,” he says.

“So our extension officers can, wherever they are, access the app and create groups of multiple growers and answer their questions, give them advice on how to manage pests, as well as other questions they may have.”

The app will also allow officers to geo-tag soil samples to identify specific coffee estates, which is important to ensure bean-to-cup traceability and enhance coffee quality.

“This is a big thing, and it’s something Indian coffee has not had to any significant measure,” he says. “But if I go to Germany and say we have the best coffees in the world, naturally the buyers will expect a very high level of quality and traceability. The infusion of technology and geo-referencing will allow coffee to be tracked to the exact estate or farm that it came from – which is critical when trying to sell to a global market.”

A second technological solution will see the Board partner with a Harvard University-linked non-profit called Precision Agriculture for Development, which uses technology to provide advice to farmers in developing countries.

“This project is to deliver extension services using voice and an automated voice response system,” Krishna says. “The pilot will start with 25,000 farmers, and we will target all 350,000 farmers in a few years.”

A third project will see the Board work with Accenture Global Labs and Indian agritech firm Eka on separate pilot projects to develop a blockchain solution with smart contracts for coffee – one of the first applications of blockchain technology in India in any sector.

Other projects include:
Using GIS technology to improve management of the coffee plantation sector. A nationwide project called the Geospatial Inventory of Coffee Plantations, or Geo-Cup, was set up in January 2016 to create an inventory of coffee plantations, analyse which sites are suitable for extending coffee plantations, and generate a Management Information System (MIS). A linked program, called KSHEMAM, uses GIS technology and analyses soil samples to help coffee farmers determine which nutrients will work best for their situation.

Working with TartanSense, a drone company, to assess coffee crop estimation. To date that assessment has been manual.
Partnering with CropIn Technologies to use analytics and track the services the Board is providing to a sample of 100 coffee farmers. The pilot will show which farmers have benefited from schemes, how they are benefiting, and who is getting multiple benefits; it will also provide a dashboard showing their coffee crop at various stages, and alerts and warnings when things go wrong.

Working with a start-up called Big Haat to ensure that farmers can order seeds, fertilisers and other products directly. “They will consolidate the demand and get better prices for farmers,” says Krishna.

Developing an app to create a farmers’ business network. This will bring farmers, buyers, curers, exporters and roasters together in a single network in a bid to connect small growers with their market. “We can even look to extend it to the end-customer in Italy, the UK, Germany, France, wherever,” Krishna says, “providing end -to-end traceability.” Work on this will begin next year.

This range of technological initiatives will not only provide a range of extension services, Krishna says, but will also create trade-based services that could result in higher productivity, lower transaction costs, lower costs of information-seeking, lower production costs and better access to discerning, high-value niche markets.

“Most are a work-in-progress since we embarked on this journey less than six months ago,” says Krishna, “and so at this stage we might end up going with all of them, or we might drop a couple”. Many are trailblazing. For instance, only France has tried using blockchain for smart-contracts in coffee, he says, and even there only as a pilot. Even the artificial intelligence project – I think we’re the first guys doing it,” he says. “With the visual analytics work, it’s something very few people have tried and succeeded with. We might succeed, we might not, but we are certainly trying.”

CBI app

Zero-data solutions
Away from technology, the Coffee Board of India is working on two related projects to build the brand identity of Indian coffee.

One is a branding exercise that several of the world’s biggest advertising agencies recently pitched for.

“The remit is to tell the story of India through Indian coffee, and make coffee the drink of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘New India’, a strong, vibrant, culturally-grounded and high achieving nation,” he says. “Can we tell that story? Can we create narratives around India and Indian coffee?”

The winning bid will be selected in the coming weeks, with the campaign – running in traditional, digital and social media – scheduled to start in March. The other is to promote the domestic consumption of coffee.

“We’ve got bids from Unilever, Nestlé and Coca-Cola to put pure filter coffee brewing machines at about 10,000 locations across India, every year,” he says. “The winning bid will be announced by the end of December.”

Connected to this effort to raise the profile of Indian coffee, the Board promoted its product at the recent Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Hyderabad, and will do the same at the World Coffee Congress in 2020.

“As you can see, we are using various ways of grabbing global eyeballs. It all feeds into each other – including having a revamped corporate gifting team,” he says. “Last but not least, we are trying to bring the Cup of Excellence to India next year.”

India Coffee House (ICH)
Many of the changes being brought by the Coffee Board of India are about technological solutions to existing challenges – but not all.

Take the venerable India Coffee House (ICH), the Board’s 12-strong chain of coffee shops that can be found in a number of prime locations in India, including at Parliament House. These, Krishna says, are in need of a revamp and expansion, perhaps to as many as 100 cities around India in partnership with leading food and beverage majors in 2018-19.

“We are reviving the India Coffee House,” he says of the outlets that began life in the 1940s, and whose staff – in white uniforms topped with a red turban – are synonymous with a brand that has long had cachet with India’s middle class.  Given that India “is a vast country – it’s like 30 European countries within one border”, his plan is to create a different look and feel for each outlet.

“I’ll give you an example: earlier this year some private entrepreneurs set up a coffee shop on the Rue de Bretagne in Paris called Araku Coffee, and it is doing very well,” he says. “Araku is the tribal coffee of India so, likewise, if I have 15 India Coffee Houses in the country, can each of them have a different theme and give a different experience of coffee?”

Connected to this, says Krishna, 2018 will see a major announcement with one of the world’s biggest brands for a co-branded, ready-to-drink India Coffee.

“In this way we will combine a ‘Made in India’ drink and a co-branded music-and-coffee platform where some of the biggest names in music will perform and new talents will be discovered,” he says. “That should go some way to fulfilling Prime Minister Modi’s vision of a ‘New India’.”  GCR

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