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Cattle theft in Kenya is being tackled with remote-tracking chip technology

A chipped cow in Kenya

Cattle theft has long been a challenge for many livestock owners in Kenya, but a new technology aims to give them peace of mind. The platform, Chipsafer, uses a remote tracking system to identify and geolocate individual livestock, offering security against theft and disease, and demonstrating a growing trend toward the Internet of Things in agriculture.

Many Kenyan livestock graze in a pastoral system, where open-ranges put animals at risk of rustling. In order to curb theft, researchers in the region have experimented with a variety of devices that allow livestock owners to monitor their herds.

Most of these devices, such radio-frequency identification (RFID) implants, can only relay information at close range. Chipsafer works at long range and automatically updates users on their livestock’s location in real time.

The system works by using receivers five to twenty miles apart. These receivers pick up signals from wireless sensors attached to livestock as tags or collars. Equipped with GPS and accelerometers, the sensors transmit data about the livestock’s location, speed, and movement patterns, which Chipsafer delivers to users via satellite.
The company is developing a set of algorithms to analyze anomalies in livestock behavior, often signs of disease or theft. With bigger datasets, the algorithms may learn to determine the exact cause of these anomalies.

“You can tell a lot about an animal through geolocation and movement,” says Victoria Alonsoperez, Chipsafer founder and CEO. “Different diseases cause animals to behave differently. We’re working on algorithms to tell us exactly what that anomaly is, based on the behavior of the animal.”

Chipsafer will face challenges entering the market in Kenya, according to Bernard Bett, a senior scientist at the International Livestock Research Institute. Bett acknowledges that rustling is a major problem in Kenya but says livestock owners and traders can be hesitant to adopt tracking devices.

“For electronic devices, like RFID and ear tags, if you’re dealing with ‘bad’ traders, they tend to remove the ear tags if they want to conceal what they’re doing,” Bett says, pointing to market tax avoidance and distrust of the technology as reasons why people remove the devices. “The difficulty is getting the middlemen to buy into the traceability programs.”

Bett raised another promising use for tracking devices like Chipsafer. “There’s a lot of drought in some parts of Kenya and it would be nice to see how some animals move about as they look for new pasture,” he says.

Using tracking technology, Bett and his colleagues hope to monitor the impact of climate change, which has shrunk and transformed the traditional ranges of herdsman both in Kenya and parts of West Africa, making droughts more severe and pastureland less plentiful. This has lead to escalating tribal conflicts and sparked fears of genocide as communities compete over increasingly limited resources.

Chipsafer recently put its technology to the test in pilot programs in Namibia and Kenya, where users reported another use for their technology when a cattle herd veered off its usual course to avoid to a nearby predator.
Pricing will be another obstacle. In a 2017 study published in the journal Tropical Animal Health and Production, Bett and his colleagues found that livestock owners are willing to spend around $1 or less per head of livestock for a traceability device. That’s about the cost of an ear tag. Alonsoperez wouldn’t give an exact price for the Chipsafer service but said it will start on a subscription basis for around $3 per head per month, depending on country and herd size. In the future she hopes to find subsidized solutions to support smaller operations.

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