Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|December 1, 2020|10 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Taking The Bull By The Algorithm

The sale of an African bull in the middle of nowhere and brought about a world record breaking moment. All thanks to a tech lawyer turned farming entrepreneur - Luck by name, luck by nature.

The stage was set for a world record best in the worst of times; COVID-19 was biting and the South African economy was going through one of its worst years in history. What a time to try to sell a bull in the middle of nowhere to a wealthy buyer on the other side of the world.

In the one corner of this story was Tarzan the Boran bull chewing happily under the shade of a marquee on a farm in South Africa.

In the other corner of this story was Jaco van der Walt, owner of Mosdene Boransa, sitting at his computer prepared to pay big bucks to bring the beef home.

In the middle of this world record contender was a piece of new technology that made it happen, invented by a savvy group of African entrepreneurs based in Cape Town.

It was a tense finish. Messages flashed in an instant between farm and far away farmer as the price kept climbing. It rapidly rose into seven figures. People couldn’t believe it.

Soon the grass chewing Tarzan was destined to make a little bit of farming history. The bull sold for R1.7 million (around $100,000) making it a contender for a Guiness Book of Records entry as the highest selling animal in an online auction.

It was a story written through an app called SwiftVEE that attempts to connect the fruit of African farming to the increasingly competitive and lucrative global market.

“To break two South African records in the worst economy of SA’s history, we’re quite chuffed with that. The Boran Bull sale could become a Guinness World Record for the highest ever online auction sale of an animal,” said the appropriately named Russel Luck, CEO of SwiftVEE.

It sounds simple but it’s not. The app uses artificial intelligence (AI) to create a powerful online weapon that helps farmers cut costs as well as optimise trade.

“Because there was extremely poor connectivity in South Africa it was difficult to livestream auctions. We were the first guys to pioneer the way to do that. Our major differentiator since day one is our use of machine learning and AI which maps market pricing and the sales prices of animal breeds in certain areas to connect buyers and sellers at optimal times and locations.”

Luck, a technology lawyer by profession, looks about as far from a farmer as you can be. He talks fast, he rarely sleeps and is relentless in a skinny tailored suit that’s more fashion than farming.

It’s ironic that a man about as far from tiling the soil as you can get is the one who promises to shake up African agriculture.

His ticket to success was the idea of training computers to do the job auctioneers do in the blink of an eye. It links farmers in the middle of nowhere to wealthy buyers everywhere.

“In the livestock area we play in a R200 billion space. It’s the third biggest economy in South Africa. There’s lots of money to be made and lots of room to innovate,” he says.

According to Luck, this gives African farmers the edge in today’s fast paced and connected global market. Linking them to buyers from Cape Town to China.

“People often ask me what a tech lawyer is doing in the Agri-space. The future of world commerce is going to be dictated by AI, food, and space. AI is going to take over most of the jobs in the world. But as populations rise You’re going to need to make food in a more intelligent way and you’re going to need efficiency about your space to farm more effectively,” said Luck.

What’s also saving farmers money is a smart price-checker that allows farmers to see if they are being overcharged for the stock they need to keep their animals alive. So much so, he says, using the tool farmers can save between five to 30%.

“Farmers go to a co-op and the price that they get for things like animal feed and vaccines varies from one farmer to another. Your emerging farmers and small-scale farmers take a pounding on price because they can’t order in large quantities. But with the price checker we are asking farmers to send in their invoices anonymously and we’ll benchmark them against farmers in the same areas. It lets the farmers go back to get a better price from the going rate.”

Because there was extremely poor connectivity in South Africa it was difficult to livestream auctions. We were the first guys to pioneer the way to do that.

- Russel Luck, CEO of SwiftVEE

The idea for the business came about in an unlikely way. Andrew Meyer, a farmer and business student, approached Luck with the idea in 2016.

“[Meyer] had a farm on the Eastern Cape. He came to me and said there must be some way of selling my livestock online.”

Luck’s lucky break led them to teaming up with software engineer Alex Molde to see if they could pull it off. But before they could finish the project, both left. Leaving Luck to follow up with a fresh new team.

One of the key reasons it got off the ground at all was Google. The project was one of 12 start-ups for Google’s first Launchpad Africa Accelerator.

Luck rode his luck and spearheaded the project online and the AI and machine learning working.

“We’re ticking the boxes by linking buyers and sellers more efficiently. We’re using AI heavily to bring down prices and were targeting the agriculture area by using space more efficiently to sell more livestock more efficiently.”

Just four years later Luck says the app represents about half of the country’s 70 livestock agents and through them about 150,000 livestock farmers.

“Once you’ve taught the algorithms to recognise animals and taught the algorithms to recognise buyers and prices, you can do a lot of cool stuff with it. That’s our game that took us three years to develop.”

While the record-breaking sales keep ticking over, for Luck the app is far from where he wants it. In November SwiftVEE landed a massive $1.5 million investment from Subtropico Ltd, an unlisted public company specialising in Agri investments, to help expand in South Africa and into Namibia and Botswana, reports Ventureburn.

“African problems require African solutions and I would say that always the hardest thing is getting capital, but once you’ve got capital there is massive opportunity,” he said.

And even before they can get overseas, his team of expert programmers are looking at going to be in the alternative credit scoring space, a lot of work risk and interesting business modelling.

“With it we can look and see what the prices of animals are doing; match auction timings to those prices; match auction times to a breed of year; and give a risk score to how an animal is going to do in the market.”

For a small start-up that began as an idea just four years ago, to make record breaking sales, the future SwiftVEE is set to expand even further into the Sub-Saharan, USA, and Europe markets at the start of 2022.

All because of taking the bull by the algorithm on the way to a world record.