Africa4Future2020: How XY Analytics Uses Satellite-based Solutions To Optimize Herd Management

Photo by Carolien van Oijen on Unsplash

Consumption of animal protein is rising rapidly in Sub Saharan Africa in the face of increasing population, urbanization, increase in income, demand for varieties of food, among other factors.

Given the current growth trends, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FOA) says that livestock farming will contribute a “non-marginal share” of the projected USD 1 trillion agriculture economy in SSA by 2030. The global food agency expects livestock farming to become the largest contributor to Africa’s agric economy in the coming decades.

South African agric-tech startup XY Analytics is working to capture value in the $350 million African cattle farm market by offering satellite-enabled pasture optimization and an IoT herd management tool to cattle farmers.

Thulani Nyandeni and Kearabetswe Nyandeni started the company in 2016 out of a demonstrated need to help local cattle owners remotely monitor the health status and location of their herd.

With diverse backgrounds in product management, product development and strategy formulation, the two co-founders, along with Senate Chere who later joined the company, have nurtured the idea of XY Analytics while working together as colleagues in an ICT company in South Africa, and have spent the last four years researching and developing products that add value to cattle farmers.

“We have different skills from an academic perspective. We come from different backgrounds; so we work well together because there’s always a different perspective, there’s technology perspective, human perspective and innovation. Whatever we come up with we make sure we bring up solutions that would fascinate the market while adding value,” Kearabetswe said.

Thulani, who leads the team as Chief Executive Officer, has a depth of knowledge in building machine learning and IoT programs, and years of industry experience in creating and managing advanced technology solutions.

Their flagship products Melusi Connect and SimplyGraze are the results of four years of intensive R&D.

Melusi Connect is an application which uses an IoT device attached on a cow’s ear to collect real-time critical health information such as body temperature, blood pressure, noise, rate of breathing, heartbeat, among others. This data is then sent to the cloud to be processed by a machine learning engine that generates insight and recommendations about the individual animal.

The proprietary machine learning engine not only processes over a dozen vital data points including heat index, health status, herd routine, calf management, calving monitor, pregnancy probability, and geo-fencing; but also communicates actionable insights to farmers via an administrative dashboard. The application provides seamless messaging alerts accessible both to educated and illiterate cattle farmers.

“Like if the cows are in heat, then we know this the perfect time for the farmer to introduce the bull to the herd so that they can get a higher rate of conception, instead of playing a guessing game,” Kearabetswe explains.

The IoT device (tag) can quickly identify sick animals before the animals start showing symptoms of illness.

“Ordinarily, it is often too late when farmers recognize that a cow is sick; even more worrisome when the disease affects many cows. However, we’re able to tell that a particular cow isn’t well and the farmer can take decisive actions to be able to prevent outbreaks.”

The Melusi Connect IoT device currently works with a SIM card chip which Thulani says poses a challenge with connectivity when relaying to the cloud-based machine learning in areas with a poor internet connection. The startup has redesigned its proprietary software and is partnering with a hardware manufacturer to produce satellite communication-enabled IoT device that works seamlessly using satellite connectivity.

“With satellite, there’s always connectivity so we can immediately be able to partner with other companies in other countries and be able to make Melusi Connect available anywhere.”

“Our biggest goal is to be able to make our solution accessible to smallholder farmers and emerging farmers. With the satellite-enabled IoT device, it becomes cheaper to reach our target customers.”

Similarly, SimplyGraze is specifically designed to assist farmers in managing and improving the quality of grazing lands by analyzing satellite imageries of the specific pasture. The system analyses grazing lands to determine the vegetation index, water availability and mineral content and vitamins in the pasture.

“The way these two products connect is – remember I said a cattle farmer is also a grass farmer – they compliment each other as a full management solution for cattle owners,” Thulani explains. “We understand that as a farmer, you also need to take care of what your animals are consuming.”

“We observed in the market that traceability has become very important as consumers want to know the source of the beef and the quality of the pasture. The quality of pasture informs the grading of the meat.”

XY Analytics sees significant traction from proactive herd managers who want to reduce the risk of grass-borne diseases and unhealthy pastoral practices.

Farmers always want to know where their cattle are. The moment the cattle move beyond the boundary, they get an alert that the herd has crossed the limit and at a specific speed. The farmer has a cause to worry if the herd is moving at a higher pace than usual.

The startup launched Melusi Connect at the beginning of the year before the Covid19 outbreak. The founders confirm that about 39 farmers have signed up on their platform as early adopters with combined herd strength of about 60,000 cows. They plan to launch the SimplyGraze solution by the end of July to monitor about 180,000-hectare farmland owned by 84 farmers who have already signed-up as pilot customers.

The founders disclosed that working on SimplyGraze was the reason the startup got involved in the Africa4future aerospace accelerator, and they have been able to complete the development of the product while in the program.

Beyond being exposed to cutting-edge geospatial technologies at Airbus and UP42, the founders agree that the accelerator has refined their approach to scaling up as a business.

“Since joining the Africa4future programme, the most important thing we’ve picked up is scaling up as a business because we have been product-oriented and focusing on building an outstanding product. We have realized that finding a way to get into the market and scaling up is as essential as having a great product.”


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