Some of the first Brazilian pioneers that set off for India to find cattle that could thrive at tropical temperatures came from Uberaba. Over the years, the zebu they brought back made the fortunes of both Uberaba and the whole country, turning Brazil into a global powerhouse in meat and milk production despite its warm climate.
Today, Uberaba is the capital of zebu genetics, housing the headquarters of the Brazilian Association of Zebu Breeders (ABCZ) and numerous industry events throughout the year, which attract hundreds of thousands of people from across the world.
The pioneering spirit of those early entrepreneurs lives on in the minds of local businesspeople that have gained national, if not global, exposure through their ideas and talent, which goes well beyond cattle breeding and genetics. Companies such as Electric Ink (tattoo equipment) and Ubyfol (crop nutrients) have become established domestic and international players in their respective fields. Meanwhile, a new generation of entrepreneurs is rising, led by start-ups such as Grão Direto, which has leveraged the local base of knowledge in the agribusiness sector to launch an app that has caught the attention of industry behemoth Monsanto.
Thanks to the work of those early pioneers, and the success of zebu breeds they raised, Uberaba has become a touchstone in the field of zebu genetics. Initially, about 6800 zebu cattle were imported into Brazil from India, and some 3000 frozen embryos, against some 1.5 million European cattle. Despite the initial disparity in that genetic endowment, today 80% of Brazil’s 220 million cattle come from the zebu root, with the remaining 20% coming from the European root.
“This tells much about the zebu’s ability to adapt in this weather,” says Arnaldo de Souza, president of the ABCZ. The association brings together some 20,000 zebu breeders from across the country and keeps a genetic registry of Brazil’s different zebu breeds.
“Nowadays Brazil is one of the biggest meat exporters in the world because we have quantity, quality and low costs – we mostly keep our animals grazing pasture. Uberaba developed around the work that we have been doing at ABCZ, which made the city the most important centre of zebu breeding in the country, if not in the world,” says Mr de Souza.
ABCZ organises major events that bring zebu breeders to Uberaba from all over the world, while generating direct and indirect business for the city's hospitality sector. Expozebu 2018 alone generated business worth a total of 176m reais ($47.5m) in less than 10 days, bringing in thousands of foreign visitors from 36 countries.
In the genes
Uberaba’s leadership in the zebu market has worked as a powerful investment catalyst for companies in the sector. “Uberaba is leader in the genetics of zebu, with two of the world’s three largest animal genetics firms active in the area,” says Mr de Souza.
Wisconsin-based ABS Global has been operating a zebu semen production centre in the city for more than 40 years, whereas Alberta-based Alta opened its centre in 2005. Together they produce about half of the 14 million units of semen sold in the Brazilian market every year, combining high genetics with a more empirical understanding of the factors that determine animal welfare and production.
“ABCZ is a magic place for us in Uberaba, because of the incredible movement of people that its events generate,” says Guilherme Marquez de Rezende, managing director for the milk division of Alta Brazil. Among other things, Alta produced a cow able to break the milk production record previously held by Cuba’s famed 'ubre blanca' (white udder), with more than 110 kilograms in just one day.
Uberaba is not only a centre for the zebu genetics industry, but also for those skills that companies such as Alta and ABS require in order to flourish. This again can be traced back to the work of the ABCZ.
“When ABCZ was created [it inherited the legacy of a previous association in 1967], it had to produce people who understood zebu breeding. So it created Fazu, a community college for agronomy and zootechnics, which it still backs today. Overall, in our area of interest we can find technical skills in three city universities, and we have our partnerships with the same universities [16 in total between public and private colleges] and training programmes,” says Mr Marquez.
The Uberaba municipal government is now committed to acting as a facilitator to protect and support the growth of local entrepreneurs, as well as attracting new external capital.
Electric Ink, for example, aims to make Uberaba the Brazilian capital of tattoo equipment. Founded by tattoo artist Paulo Fernando ≈ to produce equipment for the local market (so that local tattoo artists would not have to import everything), the company has grown to turn over about 60m reais in Brazil alone, and has a portfolio of 1200 products that export to 27 countries.
“I worry about quality, [it] is my first goal. I don’t care about money, my goal is the overall quality of the products we produce,” says Mr Angotti. “In Brazil we still have good manufacturing and competitive labour costs. And our products and processes are better than those of our Chinese competitors.
“The government of the city is very open, [giving] us great support in terms of easing the paperwork we have had to deal with over the years. It does everything as fast as it can because it knows we are hiring people and bringing income to the city, and it does that with any industry [a bill proposing to streamline investment-related red tape and decision process is now under assessment and expected to be put in place in the second half of 2018].”
Electric Ink employs 262 people in Uberaba, and Mr Angotti is committed to providing local opportunities. “What would be the meaning of all this if I don’t build a legacy for the local community to continue?” he says.
One of Electric Ink’s neighbours, Ubyfol, has also grown from a local to an international company with Uberaba-based talent and ideas to develop its production of crop nutrients, and today employs almost 200 people. “Uberaba has a big potential in human resources,” says executive director Fabrício Simões. “There are big companies in the area and it’s not difficult to find management-level resources at all. Besides, the major university faculties bring much talent to the job market.”
A start-up culture
While local companies such as Electric Ink are building on their success in the domestic market to grow the global footprint of their businesses, a new generation of entrepreneurs is emerging on the Uberaba start-up scene. Alexandre Borges is a founder of Grão Direto, a start-up offering smartphone technology that provides a modern marketplace for grain producers to sell their crops more efficiently. “After studying in other cities, we chose to come back to Uberaba because it’s a strategic hub with plenty of farmers and good logistics,” he says.
The city came sixth in a national ranking of the Brazilian cities with the most conducive environment for start-ups, and second in the state of Minas Gerais, according to 2017 research by ABStartyps and Accenture. However, in the report its position fell to 17th overall in terms of start-up density, highlighting the need for the city and local entrepreneurs to better capitalise on the local business-friendly environment.
The municipality is thus working to give new momentum to an existing technological park that could become an aggregator for start-ups such as Grão Direto, or Trackage, a provider of IT solutions for businesses across the board. It could even host some functions of the major industries scattered across the city’s industrial districts. US fertiliser producer Mosaic, which acquired a massive phosphate plant fertiliser in Uberaba from state firm Vale in 2016, announced it will set up a shared services centre in the area.
'Zebu Valley', as Uberaba’s start-up scene is colloquially known, is thus continuing a tradition for innovation and entrepreneurship that began with the first pioneers sailing to India, as a new wave of businessmen and women follow in their footsteps to the benefit of the city – and the rest of Brazil.