Breaking New Ground in Coffee & Cacao Farming in Nicaragua
Philippe Courtel – ECOM Nurseries Global Manager
Since 2011, Philippe Courtel has been on the frontlines of coffee and cacao innovation for ECOM. He is in the process of building the framework for these endeavors in Matagalpa, Nicaragua — a fluidity, which lends itself well to ingenuity.
A typical day can contain any number of tasks, but they all stem from the same root: “[My work] has been, above all, to bring technical and technological innovation…to inform a very traditional process, which is the cultivation of coffee and cocoa.”
The experiments are built on trial and error, but problem solving can often open-up pathways to innovation. Careful monitoring and documentation of plant behavior allow Philippe and his team to extract the necessary information to create more resilient plants and explore the potential for different land management systems. “With numerous tests and mistakes, we were able to improve the quality of the plants and chiefly, better understand how to overcome previous mistakes.”
In the last five years, Philippe has observed firsthand the effects of global warming on farming systems, from soil degradation to reduced agricultural productivity and drought. But he still sees great potential in the climate crisis. “I believe more and more [that climate change] is allowing us to access new projects and to take on more of a global vision and turn back the clock by replanting trees.”
Philippe was initially approached by CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) to assist with the protocol of plant multiplication at a large scale to increase plant production and decrease costs and then be contracted by ECOM.
“Somatic embryogenesis is not like baking bread. [At first], reproduction of millions of hybrids was not so easy, because there were certain barriers in the production process. [My role] came into being in the nurseries, developing techniques in collaboration with CIRAD. This has enabled certain innovations, which has set others into motion.”
Philippe has had a hand in developing two state-of-the-art techniques to improve plant quality and increase volumes of production: coffee root cuttings at a large scale and micro cocoa grafting. “These two technologies enhanced our visibility worldwide and [helped] remove barriers we had in the past, either on the production side…or with regards to accessing large-scale projects. They are the drivers that have enabled us to get to where we are today.”
To further the cause of multiplying plants at scale, the profile of this innovative work needs to be elevated. Philippe believes the exchange of information on planting material and technology is one way to approach this. Frédéric Georget, CIRAD researcher and ECOM Technical Advisor for planting material, suggests this information sharing can assist the origins in identifying technologies and planting material that can address their needs. Thus, helping ECOM and SMS identify partners who might assist in cultivating plant hybrids at scale or with exportation, for instance.
Like any successful collective, Philippe and his team share a vision of creating resilient plants that can withstand the onslaught of climate change and diseases. This shared sense of purpose translates into a conscientious staff, the trusted monitoring and aggregation of data and eventually, an excellent system of traceability.
ECOM, SMS and CIRAD are becoming key actors in the development of innovative techniques in coffee and cacao farming. Perhaps, the most hopeful sign for the future is the way in which organizations at every level are collaborating to free farmers from food and livelihood insecurity.
“We are not alone in this,” said Philippe. “Everyone has contributed, and this project is growing step by step — it is flourishing. We might not be fully prepared for it yet, but we need to get ready, because [the next big thing] is on its way.”