• 12.07.11

Parsons Student Relieves The Back-Breaking Work Of Coffee Picking

Gabriela Ravassa’s Coco bucket is designed to reduce injuries in bean pickers, the unsung heroes of Colombia’s coffee industry.

Parsons Student Relieves The Back-Breaking Work Of Coffee Picking

Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee a day–that’s 4,600 cups every second–but pay little heed to how their beverages are produced: In Colombia, the second largest coffee grower in the world, bean cherry pickers are forced to negotiate treacherous terrain, while hauling around as many as 170 pounds of beans in large, awkward buckets that stress their bodies and can lead to severe musculoskeletal injuries–all for about $16 a day.


Determined to improve pickers’ working conditions, Parsons product-design student (and native Colombian) Gabriela Ravassa set her sights on redesigning the picking container. The existing buckets–which resemble oversized sand pails that you strap around the waist–put undue strain on workers’ backs and have sharp edges that dig into the thighs, leaving bruises. They’re also difficult to grasp. That increases the chances of dropping coffee beans and can decrease producers’ bottom line. In Ravassa’s telling, farm owners already spend extra money on accessories designed to reduce spillage; they might as well just invest in better buckets.

Ravassa calls her bucket Coco (Colombian slang for “picking container”) and though it doesn’t look terribly different from what’s already out there, it includes some key enhancements. “I chose to stick with the standard bucket since it maintains the picking techniques and tools that have been successfully used for more than 170 years,” she tells Co.Design. “However, I’ve made radical changes.”

An indent at the bottom of the bucket mimics the angle of our legs when we walk, eliminating bruising. The waist strap is modeled after kidney belts–those girdle-like elastic bands that laborers wear around their lower backs to gird against strains during heavy lifting. (Ravassa even included a custom clasping system in hopes of encouraging farm owners to purchase straps and belts together.) And a “continuous handle” inspired by three-handle laundry baskets allows workers to grab the containers securely, cutting back on accidental drops.

Ravassa says that she can manufacture the buckets out of injection-molded recycled polypropylene and sell them for $20.20 each; existing buckets go for about $15.75. In a system where workers earn just 20 cents for every pound of beans they pick, it might be tough to convince farm owners to shell out an extra $5 for revamped containers. But Ravassa believes that the benefits justify the costs: Improve workers’ comfort and you can also improve their productivity.

[Images courtesy of Parsons]

About the author

Suzanne LaBarre is the editor of Co.Design. Previously, she was the online content director of Popular Science and has written for the New York Times, the New York Observer, Newsday, I.D.