Rodrigo Castilhos de Almeida used to worry about the way his grandfather ran the family farm, Fazenda Alvorada, in the Rio Grande do Sul region of southern Brazil. It’s not that his grandfather lacks skills or experience as a cattle farmer - far from it, he says:
My grandfather can look a cow in the eyes and tell you its age and its weight to an accuracy of [within] one or two kilos.
The problem was that, until recently, 80-year-old Altivo Pacheco Castilhos insisted on managing Fazenda Alvorada’s herd using pen and paper. He was happy that way, he insisted. Over 50-plus years of running the farm, he’d filled around 300 notebooks with his observations on each and every head of cattle: its date of birth, the results of weigh-ins, when it was vaccinated, inseminated, sent to slaughter and so on.
So while his grandfather may be able tell the age and weight of a cow from sight, ask him how many cattle he sold in 2007 or how many live births there were in 2011, says Almeida:
and it might take him 45 minutes with his notebooks for him to be able to give you an answer.
Eventually, the farm will pass to Almeida’s mother and then to Almeida himself - and, having pursued careers in other industries, neither of them have much experience of day-to-day farming, he says. The lack of documented processes - or at least, documented in any understandable format - was a big worry, he says:
We have a succession problem here. These notebooks - it’s almost impossible to make sense of them. Only my grandfather understands them. So how do we keep the business going after he’s gone? How can the business make any money if we don’t understand how it works?
This how Almeida got the idea for Brabov, a mobile app for cattle farmers. Launched in late 2014, the app’s name comes from ‘Bra’ for ‘Brazil’ and ‘bov’ for ‘bovinos’, the Portuguese word for cattle. But it is far more than a like-for-like replacement for a notebook, says Almeida:
Since we’re collecting all this data, we thought, why not to start to analyse it and use the findings to provide new insights? Then the app will have much more value to the people who use it. Why not use it to make predictions, even? Because every cattle farmer would like to know how much a cow is likely to weigh in three months’ time. Every farmer wants to identify the best time to send it to market, based on its weight gain and the cost of feeding required to help it reach its best weight. And these things are very hard to guess, even if you have a lot of experience.
The need to give Brabov some analytic clout led Almeida and his co-founders to SAP's Startup Focus programme, which aims to help young companies with a dependence on big data the chance to accelerate their development - and, of course, grow the market base for its HANA database at the same time.
Brabov uses SAP HANA to predict the future weight to cattle up to 18 months in advance - and it can do so with around 97% accuracy, the company claims. This allows farmers to plan better, says Almeida:
They can judge better, for example, when it’s time to send low-performing animals to the slaughter house, rather than continue to feed them. And they can predict which ones are likely to continue to gain weight, so that they are sent for slaughter at a time when the farmer will get the best price for them.
It’s still early days for the app. So far, some 4,000 users have signed up, but the majority are using the ‘freemium’ version, which is for herds up to 300 head of cattle and offers only basic reporting capabilities. The paid-for version, offering more sophisticated analytics and KPIs, meanwhile, costs 1.5 reis ($0.26) per head of cattle, per year, but so far has few takers.
That could change quickly, Almeida insists: the app’s weight tracking and prediction capabilities, combined with its market price data, enable farmers to observe more closely their progress in fattening animals up and see their market value improving. It’s an important differentiator for the app, and one that makes the ROI case simpler for users, who can simply compare improved productivity on the farm against the cost of the app:
The analytics capabilities we have with Hana aren’t just useful for customers. They’re extremely important to us in terms of building our own business.
Under the terms of SAP’s Startup Focus programme, Brabov gets those capabilities for free, along with support and expert training from SAP staff. While SAP doesn’t take an equity stake in participating start-ups, it does take a revenue cut when they reach the go-to-market phase in their development - a point that’s been achieved by around 135 of the programme’s 1,800 participants worldwide. In fact, it’s a 25 percent revenue cut - so if/when Brabov starts making money, SAP will take a quarter of its revenues.
That may seem pretty steep to many, but Brabov’s co-founders say they’re happy with the deal, because they’re getting access to technology they couldn’t afford in any other way and that gives their product a real innovative and competitive edge.
But what does Almeida’s family make of all this? He says:
My grandfather really likes the app. He enjoys using it, finds it easy and he’s made some real improvements on the farm as a result. And last time we had a family barbecue, my mother checked with him to see that the cow were were cooking had been entered as a sale into Brabov.
I started out thinking this was just a problem for my family - and ended up seeing it was my opportunity to start a business.
Disclosure - at time of writing, SAP is a premier partner of diginomica.