How IBM uses blockchain to connect coffee drinkers and farmers

At CES 2020, IBM's Jason Kelley explains how the Farmer Connect app allows consumers to have more trust in their coffee's supply chain.

How IBM uses blockchain to connect coffee drinkers and farmers

TechRepublic's Teena Maddox talked to Jason Kelley, manager of Blockchain Services for IBM, at CES 2020 about how blockchain is helping authenticate farmers' supply chains. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Jason Kelley: I'll tell you, when I start to talk about blockchain, I almost want to pull it back because blockchain is just a technology--I often call it just "the B-word." Even though it's emblazoned across my chest, it's more about what are we bringing out here as a capability at CES 2020? You think the title itself, "Consumer Electronics," so it's all about the consumer, the end user, and the outcomes that we're talking about here is trust and transparency. An end user who not only takes in this wonderful aroma of coffee but says, "I want to know where that coffee's coming from. I want to know that that coffee is, first, good quality--it's like actually what I'm buying. And what if I really like it, and I want to know not just who shipped it, but what about that farmer? How can I see with that level of transparency?"

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Some would say, "Well does a consumer really want to know that?" Consumers are telling us, yes. Coffee growers are telling us yes. If you could just share all that data in this very complicated value chain or supply chain and bring together the two most important people or players in that value chain, the grower at the very beginning where it's created, and then the consumer. And those are the two things that are most important.

Now that's where the B-word comes in. Why use this thing? Why not just use a shared database? Well, there's nothing that exists that allows that sharing of data. There's nothing that can pull down all those walls or bring together those silos except for this new technology that allows for a very trusted source of shared data. And when you see the data, that data's correct. That's it. That's blockchain explained, I just used the B-word. That is blockchain in the context of something that's real, something that's in production and able to be used. That's what we're talking about here. And it's called Farmer Connect.

Teena Maddox: And so it will make people trust their food better because they know where it came from, and that's the key point?

Jason Kelley: People will trust their food, but think about everything else in that value chain. It's not just the trust of the food, but now, think about that farmer who says, "If they can see my entire value chain, that supply chain, maybe I can get paid sooner. Maybe I don't have to wait for so-and-so to validate with so-and-so and so-and-so down the line that it was delivered and it's of the right quality." If we know that instantly, then that happens quicker as well. So, yes, we're talking about what's very easy to see now and understand that, "Wow, you know, I can trust in my coffee." But now everyone else that trusts in this blockchain thing--which is a new OS for trust--it benefits everyone in that value chain. And that's what we're talking about, the broader message. If we could bring those two players together that I mentioned, the farmer and the consumer, we're also bringing together in shrinking the complexity, simplifying that value chain.

Teena Maddox: Is there any other B-word news that you guys are releasing this week?

Jason Kelley: We're talking about lots of things, and you're hitting on the very important one here is that we are making blockchain, the B-word, real, and that's what's most important. Our objective is to be the general contractor of blockchain globally and to be number one in everyone's eyes of being able to make blockchain and its capabilities real, not just as a technology, but as a capability with data that brings together AI, that brings together IoT, and most of all benefits that end user, the consumer.

Teena Maddox: Now, when did Farmer Connect start?

Jason Kelley: We've been working on it for months. We're announcing here the app is ready, and it's being released this quarter.

Teena Maddox: And the folks that are in line behind me getting coffee, are they learning about the process for the coffee beans while they're here, or are they just enjoying the coffee?

Jason Kelley: I would say they're doing both. It's set up just with a screen at their front. We know none of us can resist staring at a screen while we're waiting for something. So, as they wait for coffee--and it's actually turned out even better than we thought… a very long queue line--and everyone is listening to the presentation that's playing in the back, as well as a celebrity chef that's talking about the provenance of food, and the video that talks about the coffee. We're having both, and we're also seeing a lot of those people then enjoy their coffee and hear how all of this plays together. Because again, it's not just about the technology, we're changing the way business is done.

Teena Maddox: That's great. And when might we see this available for applications for the public?

Jason Kelley: You're going to see that in the first quarter, and quickly following that, you're going to see other capabilities on this platform where you say, "I now have a platform for trust. If I can get a farmer tipped for their great services, well can I also help pay that shipper that shipped it with a smart contract? Why not put that on a platform as well?" Those types of services are what's coming quickly.

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