Posted by: Hanna Neuschwander | November 16, 2019

The coffee variety that wasn’t

A few years ago, a new variety of coffee tree was released for farmers. It yielded eight times as many coffee cherries as older varieties (the seeds inside the cherry are what we know as “coffee beans”). It should have been a blockbuster success.

Instead, within three years, farmers were ripping the new trees out of their fields and millions worth of investment had been lost. Why?

The coffee company that created the variety had rigorously tested to make sure it worked as expected under diverse conditions, figured out how to make it accessible, and educated farmers about its improved performance. It had convinced many thousands of people to buy  and plant the new variety. They had successfully helped farmers move through the first four stages of Rogers’ theory of innovation diffusion (2003): knowledge, persuasion, decision, and implementation.

But when it was time for the first harvest of the new trees, it turned out the cherries were much smaller than farmers were used to. It was a pain to harvest them, and they had to hire more labor to pick—a substantial unexpected cost. Farmers decided it wasn’t worth it. Innovation diffusion broke down at Rogers’ “confirmation” stage, and farmers went back to the old varieties (“replacement discontinuance”).

What happened? It turned out the company hadn’t thought to solicit broad feedback from farmers upfront. As a result, the variety had low compatibility with farmers’ practices and expectations—an innovation failure with massive implications for farmer livelihoods.

Rogers, E.M. (2003). Diffusion of innovation (5th ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.


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