IBM Harnesses Blockchain to Take Apart a Cup of Coffee

By January 27, 2020 Bitcoin Business
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Increasing Transparency for Consumers Around the Globe

Understanding the origins of a cup of coffee can be like staring into a black hole. Countless humans and machines pick, sort, package, ship, unload and prepare the beans. Yet despite measures by governments and certification organizations it’s still difficult to know the sustainability and ethical standards at each step.

IBM and Farmer Connect took aim at this massive data question. At the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas the computing giant unveiled Thank My Farmer, an app that allows coffee drinkers to not only investigate the origins of their brew, but kick extra financial support to the workers growing and picking the beans. Understanding the fine details of a supply chain has been a problem in shipping and computing for a long time. Yet now there’s a new technology helping solve the problem: blockchain.

Speaking to a packed Wired HQ audience at the conference Jason Kelley, general manager of IBM Blockchain says now there are the tools to really organize complex data sets into meaningful action. “It’s not about the B word,” he says playfully of the often-misunderstood term blockchain. “It’s about outcomes. We’re talking about sharing data across a complex supply chain with accuracy and trust.”

Kelley asks why in an age of instant messaging, electric cars and space exploration, consumers still can’t trust labels at the grocery store. “We want to make sure that coffee’s responsibly sourced. And that it’s the coffee you think it is,” he says. “We should be able to know which grower it came from. The technology’s there.”


After an initial phase, where every industry seemed to be throwing blockchain noodles against the wall, the mania has receded and experienced enterprise developers like IBM have taken the reigns developing useful applications. Blockchain gained fame as the underlying framework of cryptocurrency bitcoin, but computing experts started to imagine how the digital system of contracts and ledgers could apply to industrial and commercial questions, such as supply chains.

In the case of Thank My Farmer, which uses the same blockchain technology as IBM Food Trust, every step along the cup of coffee’s inception logs accurately and securely so consumers and enterprises can understand the history of each good. Thank My Farmer presents the information on an interactive map, allowing each cup, bag or pallet of coffee to tell a separate unique story.

“Before long we won’t even say the B word,” Kelley says. “It’ll simply be the way we transact with trusted data.”

Today, a grocery shopping cart might not contain two goods from the same part of the world. That’s left many consumers wanting more information. Understanding what, exactly, we put in our body is a basic human requirement. While the labels tell bits of the story, most consumers are demanding not only granular details but personal: Is my food sustainably grown and ethically sourced?

That’s where Thank My Farmer hopes to bridge even more gaps. Buyers connect with their growers and pickers through the application. If a coffee drinker meets their farmer in Ethiopia or Colombia they’re not only more likely to enjoy the cup, but to purchase from the brand or distributor again.

There’s also a digital donation jar. Baristas play an important role, but so do those laboring in the fields. Thank My Farmer gives consumers the ability to fund sustainability projects right in the farmer’s community. They may be thousands miles around the planet but the technology still allows these workers to know their efforts appreciated.

Understanding the origins of a cup of coffee can be like staring into a black hole. Countless humans and machines pick, sort, […]

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