Professors brew innovative projects in Nicaragua


Imagine some future morning. Bleary-eyed, you crawl out of bed and stumble to the kitchen. You hit a button on a machine that roasts raw coffee beans, grinds them, and brews them up fresh.

Now, imagine that you know not only what country the beans come from, but the name of the farmer who grew them and that a fair price was paid for those beans. It might be the best go-go juice you've ever tasted, and it's also good for your conscience.

Too good to be true? Not if an interdisciplinary project undertaken by marketing professor Paul Lane and engineering professor John Farris takes off. They're working on developing a single machine that can perform all of those tasks, while setting up a business model that will help farmers get a better price for their beans. They have made five trips to Nicaragua over the past few years, working to create innovative and sustainable projects that can improve lives both here and there.

The promise of the coffee project inspired a new Nicaragua initiative that has Grand Valley faculty and students working with counterparts from Smith College in the U.S. and the Facultad Regional Multidisciplinaria (FAREM) and Universidad Popular de Nicaragua (UPONIC) in Nicaragua. Lane said he hopes this program will help improve life in Nicaragua, which has the second-poorest economy in the hemisphere.

We're not trying to bring them anything. We're trying to help them develop a process like the one we've developed here at Grand Valley that works within Nicaragua with Nicaraguan resources to develop products in Nicaragua that Nicaraguans can use. That's the exciting part of it, Lane said.

Participants worked in interdisciplinary teams to identify major problems that exist in the community and try to come up with products that could address those problems while still being affordable. Examples of products being developed include a mechanical fan that is powered by weights instead of electricity and can provide cooling. Another is a desk with a foot pedal underneath that can be used to power lights.

The program is gaining momentum at Grand Valley. On a visit in May, Lane and Farris were joined by biology professor Jodee Hunt, an ecologist who teaches environmental science.

It was fascinating to have a biologist, an engineer and a marketing person traveling together and trying to figure out our mutual interests and seeing it through different eyes, Lane said.

Paul Lane, center, turns the crank on a machine used to remove coffee beans from the fruit. Lane said the farmers "are barely surviving on what they're making.

Hunt echoed those sentiments. "I can help them see the differences among farms and ecosystems, and to notice the richness of the plants and animals. They wouldn't notice these subtleties, because that's not what they do," Hunt said.

"What happened while we were in Nicaragua was a continuation of this explosion of innovation, but in a different way, Hunt said. We're branching out into developing highly interdisciplinary international learning experiences for Grand Valley students unlike anything the university has ever offered before. We're coming up with novel ways of doing international teaching and research and service, where we learn from the Nicaraguans and see what they're doing and how they're doing it. We find out from them the things in daily life that drive them crazy, or make them exhausted or sick, or could be more efficient. By learning from them and then thinking about their challenges from different perspectives simultaneously, maybe we can come up with some ideas and solutions together.

The all-in-one coffee roaster, grinder and brewer envisioned as a solution a Nicaraguan problem. Part of the project's appeal is that people are increasingly serious about their coffee these days. "Coffee is getting to be like wine. The price keeps going up, and people are getting more and more sophisticated," Farris said.

But while the prices are going up here, the farmers who grow the beans are seeing little of that money. Lane said he and Farris discovered there was a problem with the coffee business when they first visited Nicaragua was part of an initiative led by Gayla Jewell from the Kirkhof College of Nursing. "We came to realize that many of the coffee farms are run by women, and they are barely surviving on what they're making," Lane said.

But the question of how to help those farmers seemed overwhelming at first. "We began to look at the coffee markets. It's the second-largest commodity market in the world behind oil. We're not going to sit here and help these women achieve anything because we can't change the market," Lane said.

Lane said the a-ha moment came when they decided to work on a smaller scale. "We wondered what would happen if we took an entirely different position in the market and focused on green, unroasted beans," Lane said.

So Lane and Farris developed the concept by which people would order their unroasted beans directly from the farmers to use in this new home appliance. "There are two types of people it's going to appeal to. It's going to appeal to the coffee connoisseur who likes the taste of coffee, and it's going to appeal to people who want to give back in society. Many people today are looking to shop for products in which they can give back to others in a shared way," Lane said.

Working with students from the School of Engineering, Farris has built two prototypes of the machine, and a third one is in the works during Winter Semester. The project won an award for a student mechanism design contest sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The prototype was shown at the Home Appliance Show in Chicago, where it made a bit of a stir among manufacturers. "I think they liked the social entrepreneurship aspect of it," Farris said.

But it hasn't been an easy project to build, Farris said, because roasting coffee is not a simple process. "Some people will tell you that roasting is really an art," he said.

"There are a lot of difficulties," Farris said. "Roasting is a high-heat process, so you have to be careful of fire hazards. Roasting also often produces smoke and not a very pleasant odor, so you've got to take care of those things. The nice smell comes from when you grind the roasted coffee."

Other challenges include figuring out how to control the temperature so users can get the proper roast for different amounts of beans and how to integrate all of the different functions into one machine. "There are a lot of really good technical problems to get into," Farris said.

While developing the machine has been a good engineering exercise, the interdisciplinary connections have been an important part of the process.

"Paul's marketing expertise has really pushed the project along" Farris said. "If it was just me, we would have never done it. I would have asked 'Is there a market out there?' and I would have said 'Probably not,' because I don't see anybody doing it. I don't know how to test for those things, and I don't have the time. But Paul was able to take his classes and prove that there was a market out there and prove what was important to the market."

What Lane's research discovered is that a potential market exists, but that the appliance needs to be easy to use. Also, he found that potential users place a high value on the connection between the producer and the consumer.

Lane said if this project works, the farmers will see a big benefit. "We think that by doing this we will be able to double the amount of money farmers are making from the beans and in a very small way change the coffee market," Lane said.

Lane noted that Grand Valley students closer to home also benefit from this same kind of cross-discipline approach. "Some of the projects engineering students are working on need market studies, and some of our marketing students are working on projects that need technical help," he said. "Innovation is one of the things that built Grand Valley, and innovation is what we need for the future," Lane said.

This summer, Lane and Farris will teach a course on socially conscious innovation on the Meijer Campus in Holland that draws on some of the lessons learned in Nicaragua.

Page last modified March 17, 2014