Farming in the digital age

Using digital connectivity to revolutionise traditional farming and agribusiness across Brazil

Rafael Henrique Luz is a 29 year old small coffee producer in the Brazilian South-eastern State of Minas Gerais. The mountainous region just to the north of Sao Paulo State is home to some of the best coffees in the world.

Much of the production comes from small family-owned farms without access to the most expensive productivity tools available to large farms. But this is changing.

This year, Rafael’s Fazenda da Serra had its first ever mechanical harvest, using a machine rented from a bigger farmer with the help of Uller, a mobile app that markets itself as the “agribusiness Uber”.

It cost him around US$2000 to use the machine for 40 hours. The manual harvest would set him back twice that amount. And having a machine himself is completely out of question. At up to US$200,000, a coffee harvester would not make sense for his property size, around 12 hectares.

“I heard about the app from some friends, download it and it was very easy to find a suitable machine”, says Rafael.

The app was created by Danielle Fonseca, a 25 year old daughter of a farmer herself. “I noted that there were many farm machines with a lot of idle time and there were also a lot of farmers who couldn’t afford one and would benefit from using them”, explains.

The Sharing Economy For Farming

“We were already familiar with the sharing economy and users ourselves of services like Uber and AirBnb. So I started to think on how this could be applied to farmers like us, creating a more sustainable economy”.

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From idea to development, Uller took one year.

Launched in February, it already has more than 200 users, most of them in the south of Minas Gerais. The company charges 10% of the fee agreed between the parts and Danielle projects revenue of about US$200,000 this year.

“I think the app has also the potential to create a community of rural producers who could share not only assets but information and help in a broader sense”, adds Danielle.

“Uller is an example of an initiative that is making some of the most sophisticated and expensive solutions available to a larger number of small and medium producers”, say Clayton Melo from StartAgro, another start-up that works as an online hub connecting agribusiness innovators, producers and investors.

There are no official numbers about the size of the market, but according to Melo some estimates put the number of agritech start-ups in Brazil between 100 and 200. “Brazil has probably the second largest number only behind the Unites States”, says Melo. “And most of them are in the first life stages, so there is a lot of potential for innovation in the years to come”.

Recently elected one of the Forbes 25 Most Innovative Ag-Tech Startups, BovControl is another example of start-up helping medium and small size producers increase their productivity. The company’s app allow cattle producers to collect, analyse and keep track of all information regarding their herd.

Huge Potential For Innovation

“The cattle handler enter the information about the animals on the smartphone and can have detailed reports with lot of variables, including weight gain and milk production”, explains BovControl’s UX Designer Marcelo Murachovsky. “That allows the farmer identify health issues with a particular animal when, for instance, the weight gain or milk production is not according to what is expected”.

The app also works as a low-cost traceability tool, allowing the livestock farmer to keep track of the animal’s origin and movement through the supply chain, something essential to meet the most rigorous markets and company’s requirements.

BovControl is already used by 30.000 producers in five continents. “And the user base is growing at a rate of 5% a month, so we are doubling that base of users every year”, says Murachovsky.

Innovation is not something new in Brazil. The first step for the country’s green revolution was given in the 70´s with the creation of Embrapa, the government Brazilian Agriculture Research Corporation. Embrapa is credited with transforming the Cerrado, the Brazilian savannah, from a region regarded unsuitable to agriculture into the one of the most productive regions in the world for both grain and cattle.

“In the 70’s, Brazil was still a net importer of food”, says Celso Moretti, Embrapa’s director of research and development. From 1975, Brazilian agriculture productivity rose by 3% a year.

Today, the country is the largest exporter of sugar, coffee, orange juice, soya and chicken meat, the second for beef meat and the fourth for pork meat. And according to the FAO and OECD, Brazil is the country that is set to benefit most from the coming growth in demand for food, especially regarding meat.

“One year of Brazil’s grain production would be enough to provide one billion people with 250kg of food, which is the amount FAO reckons is a person’s need”, says Moretti.

Embrapa is now working on genetic code edition. “One of our main projects aims to create new varieties of sugar cane and corn drought resistant”, Celso Moretti. “That would allow those crops to adapt to new production areas and also to be more sustainable”, explains. “If everything goes according to plan, we should the first results and some four years from now.”

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