San Diego — A husband-and-wife research team recently demonstrated how they are helping improve one of the world’s most traded agricultural products through the use of geographic information systems technology.
Drs. Tim Schilling and Michele Adesir-Schilling presented their keynote “Grounds for Change” presentation on the use of GIS technology to improve coffee quality at the Esri International User Conference in San Diego attended by more than 13,000 people involved or interested in this technology.
The couple spoke about their joint work in helping revitalize Rwanda’s coffee sector and the use of GIS technology in those efforts. They also addressed how the technology applied to the Rwandan coffee market might be used to help improve worldwide coffee quality and production.
“GIS technology was helpful in accelerating the development of the Rwandan coffee sector and the ability of the Rwandan government and private sector to make better, more rational decisions about processing centers, coffee trees replacement and the selection of special extra-high-quality ‘terroirs’ in which to develop coffee appellations,” said Tim Schilling.
Schilling, an agronomist, is the executive director of the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative - a collaborative research program of the specialty coffee industry and the Norman Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture, part of Texas AgriLife Research.
“The goal of this global research initiative is to improve, grow and protect the world’s supply of high-quality, washed Arabica coffee,” Schilling said. “The long-term supply and availability of this important global commodity is seriously challenged and there is a paucity of research to identify appropriate and innovative ways of increasing quality and volumes of quality coffee.”
During their presentation, Michele Adesir-Schilling, a geographer, described her past efforts using GIS technology to assist in conserving and improving natural resources in Africa, as well as the work she did with her husband toward improving the Rwandan coffee sector.
“My goal when I was director of the Center of GIS and Remote Sensing at the National University of Rwanda was to help develop a spatial-literate society in which GIS could be used to address issues of local, national and regional importance, such as societal and economic transformation and sustainable development,” she said.
She added that working with her husband was “like going into unknown territory, never knowing what’s going to happen in the next minute, but that it always somehow turns out beautiful.”
“Tim and Michele employed GIS technology to help revitalize the Rwandan coffee industry and bring Rwandan coffee into American and European coffee markets,” said Dr. Ed Price, director of the Borlaug Institute. The institute - named for Dr. Norman Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and father of the green revolution - is located at Texas A&M University in
College Station, where Borlaug served as a distinguished professor of international agriculture.
“Their efforts were primarily through the multi-year PEARL and SPREAD projects which the institute lead and Tim directed in-country, with funding provided by the U.S. Agency for International Development,” Price said.
“Together, Tim and Michele have been involved in Rwandan coffee improvement efforts for almost a decade, since moving to Rwanda with their family in 2001. And now, Tim is involved in coffee improvement on a much larger scale.”
In their presentation, the couple explained how they used GIS technology to determine the optimal sites for locating badly needed coffee washing stations throughout Rwanda. They described how they developed a GIS model that “linked space to taste” by connecting specific characteristics in coffee taste profiles with those environmental factors that might have an influence on those profiles.
“We saw that the missing link in coffee quality among the country’s 500,000 coffee farmers was the lack of centralized washing stations where the farmers could bring their coffee cherries for processing in a manner to ensure a consistent, high-quality product,” Schilling said.
The couple said the GIS technology they used was not only important in determining the optimal geographical, logistical and environmental criteria for the placement of washing stations – of which there are now almost 200 throughout Rwanda - but also in developing coffee “appellations” similar to those used in the wine industry.
“We are hoping to use GIS technology to help ensure production of consistent coffee lots that have both unique and desirable traits for which specialty coffee buyers and consumers will pay a premium,” Schilling said. “This will ensure better income and a better quality of life for small coffee farmers.”
The Schillings said GIS technology helped them bring Rwandan farmers into the competitive global coffee market by helping those farmers leverage available natural resources and develop a thriving co-op model that could be adopted by other countries. They added that revitalization and development of this multi-million-dollar sector also greatly increased the income of more than 100,000 small coffee producers, allowing them to provide better housing, education and medical care for themselves and their families.
The Schilling’s efforts with GIS technology also fit with one of the main goals of the Rwandan government’s Vision 2020 plan, which proposes to transform that country’s subsistence agriculture economy to a knowledge-based society, noted Dr. Linda Cleboski, African programs coordinator for the Borlaug Institute.
“Vision 2020 includes comprehensive human resources development, including the development of information and communications technology skills within public and private sectors and civil society to help address demographic,
health and gender issues,” Cleboski said. “It also states the need for improved infrastructure development to support that expanding technology.”
Bianca Manago, coffee research initiative program coordinator for the Borlaug Institute, added industry partners involved with the new global coffee quality initiative understand “the potential that (it) has to dramatically improve the livelihoods of coffee growers who often live in parts of the world which are vulnerable to food insecurity.”
Schilling said the use of geographical information systems and other information technology will continue to be an important component of his future global coffee quality research.
“This research will not only seek to increase the quality of coffee, but also the amount of specialty coffee available to the world market, through better cultivation practices, better post-harvest processing of coffee cherries, better transportation and storage systems, and improved coffee varieties,” he said.
He said there is a legitimate concern that climate change could potentially negatively affect production in more than 50 percent of the world’s coffee-growing areas.
“But we will do everything we can to prevent such a possible disaster through the innovative research we’re doing now,” he said. “We will continue to help small coffee producers focus on increasing the global supply of quality coffees, as well as continue to them generate more income and create a better future for their children.”
Environmental Systems Research Institute, Inc. (Esri) - According to the Esri website, “geography connects our many cultures and societies and influences our way of life.” The site also states that Esri is built on the philosophy that a geographic approach to problem solving ensures better communication and collaboration, and that geographic information system technology leverages this geographic insight to address social, economic, business, and environmental concerns at local, regional, national and global scales.
The Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative was conceived by companies and thought-leaders in the specialty coffee industry to improve, grow, and protect the supply of high quality coffee. The primary goal of the initiative is to improve, grow and protect the supply of high quality, washed Arabica coffee with the intended outcome of strengthening the
specialty coffee supply chain. Along with conducting collaborative research among a wide variety of institutions to find ways to increase coffee production and meet growing demand, the initiative will benefit hundreds of thousands of small-production farmers in coffee-growing areas throughout the world. For more information, go to: http://www.gcqri.org.