For livestock farmers, shows and auctions are just part of life. They’re where farmers and other buyers go to buy or sell animals, network and scope out market rates.
In South Africa, these events became a bleak affair amid recent years of severe drought. Many farmers resorted to selling their livestock at rock-bottom prices because they couldn’t afford to feed and water them. Government-hosted public auctions encouraged farmers to cut the size of their herds to mitigate the impacts of drought.
“Farmers were being forced to sell their cattle for as little as $70 in these public auctions,” recalls Russel Luck, a tech lawyer turned farming entrepreneur.
Luck launched SwiftVee, an online livestock auction site, to help farmers secure fairer rates for their animals without hassles of bringing them to a live auction event.
In markets like South Africa, where commercial farms are prevalent, trading livestock is part of the business. But across most of Africa, livestock is currency, and financial security, for families with small farms. Cattle, sheep, goats and chickens are an important source of income, and often a ticket for children’s’ education or out of financial hardship.
For commercial and smallholder farmers alike, livestock farming—and the income it provides—is under threat from climate change. (It is also a contributor to climate change, responsible for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions.)
“Climate change and recurring droughts — like the ones in 2015/16 and 2019 — threaten the long-term viability of the sector,” finds a recent report from the Malabo Montpellier Panel, an international agriculture policy advocacy group.
That will have an impact on both South Africa’s farming sector and international food prices: the country is the 12th largest producer of beef in the world and the largest producer in Africa. Meat accounts for a third of overall consumer food spending in South Africa.
Through SwiftVee, Luck wants to ease the uncertainty for today’s livestock farmers. The startup uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to match buyers and sellers of livestock from anywhere in the world, optimizing for time and location. Live video streams, coupled with the platform’s analytics, give buyers an accurate sense of the animals on offer and helps sellers secure competitive pricing.
“For the first time ever, a farmer in South Africa experiencing drought can auction their livestock online and secure buyers from anywhere in the world,” explains Luck.
Since launching in 2018, SwiftVee has facilitated the sale of more than 100,000 animals for 20,000 farmers. Luck says it is South Africa’s largest independent livestock trading platform, representing about half of South Africa’s livestock agents and 150,000 farmers.
During the Covid-19 lockdowns, SwiftVee saw trading numbers on the site increase because people were restricted from attending auctions in person. The ripple effect has been-record breaking in prices, Luck says.
Pricing is also being buoyed by increasing meat prices and growth in South Africa’s beef exports, which is stimulating demand for good-quality genetics, he adds.
SwiftVee raised $1.5 million from South African agri-investment firm Subtropico to support its regional expansion into Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe. Namibia is particularly important market as South Africa imports nearly all of its live cattle from Namibia.
“We also have plans to expand to China which is a big market and where we believe people will eat less pork and more beef,” Luck says.
The company is also expanding its products and services. It recently partnered with insurance company Old Mutual to launch a digital insurance product called VeeSure for livestock buyers.