Smart farming as a strategic opportunity for MNOs: Grammenphone’s Connected Cow initative in Bangladesh

This blog was co-authored by Matthew Strickland, GSMA and Imtiaz Mahboob, Grameenphone Bangladesh.

The adoption of dairy cow crossbreeds in Bangladesh has generally increased national milk production, although this is still insufficient to meet demand. National milk demand stands at 15.2M metric tonnes, yet production is only around 10M metric tonnes (a 34% shortfall).  Mobile network operator (MNO) Grameenphone Bangladesh, began targeting the rural market in 2015, when it launched the digital advisory service Krishi Sheba (”Farmer Friend”) providing farmers with voice-based agronomic and nutritional advice. Given the challenges faced by the dairy sector to meet milk production, Grameenphone is now looking to support dairy sector development with its own cow oestrus detection system dubbed Connected Cow.

Improving farmer’s income

Annual milk production is closely dependent on timely mating of a farmer’s cows. Traditional monitoring for when cows go into oestrous is inefficient and the fact that this can often happen overnight, means that the narrow window of opportunity for artificial insemination (AI) is frequently missed. According to Imtiaz Mahboob, Product Manager at Grameenphone Bangladesh, “these missed opportunities are estimated to cost a farmer around BDT13,000 (~USD 153) per cow per ovulation cycle in missed milk production and upkeep of their cows”.  Accurate oestrus detection will allow dairy farmers to maximise the number of pregnancies through AI, increase milk production and sell calves to fellow farmers for supplementary income.

Smart farming as a strategic opportunity

Born out of Grameenphone’s Digital Innovation Hub, “Connected Cow” is the latest pilot of a growing suite of digital agriculture services. Besides the cow oestrus detection solution, Grameenphone are making their first footsteps into the world of smart farming with a soil testing device that is currently under development. The intention is that over time, Grameenphone’s digital agriculture services will be connected through a centralised platform that facilitates creation of digital economic identities of farmers, enabling access to financial services such as loans and insurance.

Growth in digital services is a key enabler for Grameenphone for both its core business as well as exploration of future opportunities. Delivering personalised services through analytics as well as further leveraging Grameenphone’s existing digital assets directly enhance their core business services.  Alongside achieving Grameenphone targets to increase M2M and IoT data usage and opt in new data users in the rural market, their digital advisory and smart-farming services help drive the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of reducing inequality and hunger within Bangladesh.

Seeking local partnerships

Connected Cow consists of a simple and lightweight device worn around the cow’s horns, that uses sensors to track a cow’s temperature and movement.  Data is relayed at 15-minute intervals and analysed through a proprietary algorithm, triggering an SMS alert to the farmer when the cow is going into oestrous or going through any health anomaly.  This early warning enables the farmer to arrange a veterinary visit to provide AI and diagnostics at the right time.Buying ready-made off-the-shelf sensors is not a commercially viable option for Grameenphone as prices mean they would not be able to offer a profitable service at an affordable rate to farmers. Local regulations also prevent MNOs from developing hardware in-house. Grameenphone therefore contracted local start-up iFarmer to design and build the device and software behind the Connected Cow service. 

In close collaboration with Grameenphone, iFarmer have developed a product that delivers the correct volume of relevant monitoring data, while maintaining a practical battery life of the device (around 12 months at present). To further reduce upfront costs, speed up the development of a minimum viable product, and start to gather data for validate the algorithm, Grameenphone has opted to use widely available components for 4G connectivity in their early service prototypes as this network has broad national coverage.  Up to 30 Connected Cow devices connect via Bluetooth to a 4G Machine-to-Machine (M2M) router installed in the cowshed and located no more than 300 metres away.

Future roadmap: leveraging the power of data

The product roadmap has already targeted a number of modifications, once the algorithm validation is complete.  The team are keen to further reduce the size of the device and leverage Grameenphone’s existing NB-IoT network, eliminating the need for the Bluetooth module and 4G router. Doing so will significantly increase battery life (up to around 4 years) and vastly simplify installation. 

In addition, the team are exploring ways to leverage the data collected and support new use cases, such as identifying cows suffering from illness. Lastly, Grameenphone are designing a dashboard and app for use on smartphones and are conducting field research to understand farmers’ needs for information and alerts.  By providing more granular, cow-level data, farmers can benefit from having more information readily available, which they could use, for example, to isolate cows showing illness for closer monitoring or to prevent the spread of disease.

Over time, Grameenphone expect to build a powerful database containing detailed information on the cows being monitored, which could be used to further enhance the algorithm and align with some of Grameenphone’s other digital agriculture services.  For example, data points such as birthdate, last oestrous cycle and calving date, can be used in conjunction with the mass market digital advisory Krishi Sheba to provide hyper-relevant and personalised livestock advice to farmers, based on the calf’s age and development.  By doing so, Grameenphone can expand the value-add to farmers subscribing to the service and reduce churn in rural areas.

With their first smart farming services, Grameenphone are following a similar pricing model as with their urban-focussed smart offerings.  The MNO still needs to define exact pricing for the Connected Cow service. The solutions is however likely to involve an upfront device purchase and monthly subscription model that estimates suggest could enable farmers to make a return within 6-18 months depending on the number of cows being monitored.

With COVID-19 affecting agricultural supply chains, providing farmers with timely and accurate information to maximise their productive capacity is more important than ever.  Grameenphone’s Smart farming initiative is an exciting approach into harnessing digital agriculture in an accessible manner for smallholder farmers.  We look forward to monitoring their progress over the coming seasons.

Want to read more about smart farming and IOT solutions? Check out our blog on affordable smart farming solutions in Sri Lanka.

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