The FNC searches for new, more efficient coffee harvesting solutions
In the last decade, labor shortages in coffee production, particularly in harvesting, have been a challenge across the industry. Not only is the average age of plantation owners increasing, but also their children are looking elsewhere for career opportunities that are less physically taxing and more financially stable. In Colombia especially, the recent economic revival and the resulting construction boom have been enticing enterprising youth to the cities, slashing unemployment levels to historic lows.
In the last two harvest seasons, Colombia’s green coffee bean production has hit record levels not seen since the early 1990s after dropping to all-time lows during 2008 to 2012.
According to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), total green coffee output from Colombia nearly doubled in the last five years, climbing from 7.65 million 60-kg bags in the 2011/12 harvest season to 14.5 million 60-kg bags in the 2016/17 harvest season.
So amid a return to stronger growth levels, many of today’s farmers simply don’t have enough help to harvest it all. Many farmers have had to leave portions of their small plots unharvested due to the labor shortages. In 2015, Colombia’s National Coffee Growers Federation (FNC) told Reuters that most of the country’s largest coffee regions needed 20% to 40% more pickers to ensure quality by picking each cherry when it is at its ripest. Today that percentage is higher.
As the number-three producer of green coffee and the top producer of high-quality Arabica, the Colombian coffee industry has been hard at work trying to tackle this escalating problem.
Growers have steadily increased wages to draw workers back to the fields. In fact, the FNC CEO Roberto Vélez reported in 2016 that workers could earn up to 2 million pesos, then about US$700 per month – nearly three times the country’s minimum wage. The Federation advertised work opportunities in local media, while growers made public announcements in bus stops and town squares.
So in a final call to action, the FNC launched an initiative to procure and then develop alternative harvesting solutions: “CoffeepickINN,” a global competition of sorts to aggregate the best harvesting advancements.
The public call seeks to identify innovative proposals, coming from groups of entrepreneurs, researchers and industry companies that, through creative, scientific or technological innovations, make coffee picking in Colombia more efficient, without sacrificing quality.
“CoffeepickINN” put the challenge of making coffee harvesting more efficient in the hands of the industry’s experts and participants – but with a monetary incentive.
Through the initiative, “we want to generate shared value between the proponents and the FNC through joint development of innovations that solve the problem of high labor costs in coffee harvesting in Colombia, aiming at higher profitability for producers,” Vélez told Global Coffee Report.
The FNC, through its R&D arm, the National Coffee Research Center (Cenicafé), started exploring a wide variety of alternatives with the help of coffee growers themselves, whose opinions and recommendations are being taken into account. The tests on the ground thus far include nets for optimizing manual harvesting and motorized devices, such as shakers.
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FNC searches for new harvesting solutions. January 2018. Australia. Global Coffee Report. Retrieved from http://gcrmag.com/technology/view/fnc-searches-for-new-harvesting-solutions