Meet The Social Entrepreneur Behind Africa's "Uber For The Farm"

 Jehiel Oliver, Founder of Hello Tractor. (PHOTO: HELLO TRACTOR)

Jehiel Oliver, Founder of Hello Tractor. (PHOTO: HELLO TRACTOR)

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Uber’s ride-sharing technology has become ubiquitous over the last 10 years, and its model has been adapted to everything from snow-plowing to dog-walking services. Now, social entrepreneur Jehiel Oliver and his organization, Hello Tractor, have demonstrated another use: fighting poverty and scarcity in Africa’s remote rural communities.

That fight is especially critical for the continent’s youth. Less than a quarter of the more than 350 million young Africans who will enter the labor force by 2035 will find formal wage employment. That demographic bulge could have scary implications for Africa and the world.

Surging youth populations can easily push fragile nations to the brink, driving food insecurity, migration, and violent extremism. But, correctly harnessed, they can also offer an opportunity for accelerated economic transformation of the whole continent. Earlier this year, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs produced a report (for which Jehiel and I served on the task force) examining how the agricultural sector—the single largest employer of young people in sub-Saharan Africa—can be a key driver of this change.

But how do you sell agriculture as a meaningful career for young people? Hello Tractor, founded in 2014, is helping illuminate one path: By cutting down on the labor and the drudgery long associated with farming, they’re making it more attractive and more lucrative for the next generation.

In just a few short years, the organization has reached more than 250,000 smallholder African farmers. I sat down with Jehiel Oliver to discuss how market-based solutions can create impact at scale, how technology offers a path out of poverty for African youth, and why his business is so much more than just “Uber for the farm.”

WILLY FOOTE: What gave you the idea to found Hello Tractor? 

JEHIEL OLIVER: Across sub-Saharan Africa, 220 million farmers live on less than $2 a day. Many of them struggle to produce enough food to feed their families and sustain their livelihoods. My experience working in global finance and agriculture brought me to frontier markets where I saw this firsthand.

Smallholder farmers don’t have the machinery they need to fully cultivate their land. Tractors and farm equipment are expensive, and financing is virtually nonexistent. But I realized, if farmers have access to a tractor, that’s as good as owning one. That’s why I started Hello Tractor. Our platform connects tractor owners to farmers through a digital app. Most buyers of compact tractors purchase these assets as an income-generating business opportunity. Our technology makes it easier and less risky for tractor owners to run these businesses, while connecting smallholder farmers to machinery that lets them plant 40 times faster at one-third the cost.

WF: Your company has been referred to as “Uber for the farm” both because of its focus on mobile technology and its role as a market disruptor. What do you think of this comparison? 

JO: The “Uber for the farm” comparison helps people visualize our business model and understand that collaborative consumption is at its core. Like Uber, we’re disrupting and reshaping a complex and antiquated ecosystem (agricultural mechanization) by driving efficiencies through technology. However, the comparison to Uber does not cover the entirety of the work that we do. In addition to connecting farmers to tractors, we provide a number of tools to enhance a tractor owner’s business and operations.

 Hello Tractor's mobile app. (PHOTO: HELLO TRACTOR)

Hello Tractor's mobile app. (PHOTO: HELLO TRACTOR)

Our solution begins with a hardware monitoring device that can be installed on any tractor within minutes, connecting it to the cloud. This secure, discreet device is fitted with GPS and an international SIM card for broad coverage, but can store activity data locally if no connection exists. Once the device is in place, it can transfer data to Hello Tractor’s mobile applications, where it is displayed in a user-friendly format. Our Tractor Owner app includes tools such as service request management, tractor and fleet management, operator performance, and activity tracking.

By connecting farmers in need of service to tractor owners, while also enhancing a tractor owner’s existing business, we’re sort of a hybrid. An Uber-meets-Salesforce for tractors.

WF: What lessons do you take from a company like Uber? What do you aim to do the same or differently?

JO: I think one of the things that Uber does well is providing transparency throughout the service delivery process, from start to finish. At Hello Tractor, we aim to do the same. Tractor owners have full visibility into tractor location, route traveled, activities performed, fuel consumed, and even maintenance requirements and operator performance. They can see where their tractor is and what it’s doing at all times.

The experience is similar for the farmers. Once service is completed, our platform allows farmers to rate the tractor operators who have worked on their land. Like Uber, our application aggregates these ratings over time and makes them visible to farmers, helping them decide which tractor owners they can count on. Perhaps more importantly, tractor owners can also see these ratings, which helps them better understand how their operators perform and take steps to ensure high-quality and timely service.

Unlike Uber, oftentimes the direct beneficiary of our services—the farmer—lacks access to mobile technology. Or a farmer might have a phone but distrust the concept of making a large transaction through text message. To address this, Hello Tractor recruits and trains its own network of booking agents to help reach farmers in need of tractor service. Partnering with different organizations and outreach agencies, we identified young, tech- savvy men and women living in or near rural villages who have experience working with or selling products and services to farmers. When a Hello Tractor booking agent submits a request, it is routed to tractor owners on the platform based on target geography and tractor availability. In this way, our booking agents can overcome technology gaps and ensure that idle tractors are connected to farmers. And since we primarily hire young people for these roles, we are able to provide underemployed rural youth with sustainable livelihoods.

 Two Hello Tractor booking agents speak with farmers about available services.(PHOTO: HELLO TRACTOR)

Two Hello Tractor booking agents speak with farmers about available services.(PHOTO: HELLO TRACTOR)

WF: You make running a social enterprise sound so easy... but as I've learned time and time again over the last 19 years, social entrepreneurship is anything but. What are some of the challenges you've faced as you've grown your business?

JO: I agree that it is anything but easy. We’ve faced our share of challenges, but I believe the strength of our team is its ability to adapt and innovate our business model without ever losing sight of our mission. I’ll give you an example. When Hello Tractor launched in 2014, our flagship product was an affordable, ultra-low horsepower, two-wheel tractor fitted with our monitoring technology. We sold these to enterprising farmers or cooperatives, who then accessed our tractor-sharing platform to identify and service additional demand from smallholders.

Great in theory? Yes. Great in practice? Not at that time. The Nigerian economy slipped into a two-year recession soon after we launched. Credit markets dried up and depreciation of the local currency effectively doubled the price of our tractors, making it impossible for our customers to finance purchases. Perhaps more importantly, we realized that to make it financially attractive for tractor owners to use our platform, the tractors themselves would need to be able to reach more farmers over a wider distance than was feasible for our existing product.

So, in January 2017, we made the strategic decision to focus more on our application than on the tractors themselves. This has proved a more effective model, enabling us to capture 75% of private commercial tractor inflows to Nigeria, expand to five markets across Africa through strategic partnerships, and touch the lives of 250,000 farmers.

WF: I've long subscribed to a philosophy of "pathological collaboration"—that the only way to truly address the challenges we seek to solve, on the scale at which we need to solve them, is to join together with like-minded folks in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors so we can maximize our impact. What's your take on that? How does Hello Tractor approach these partnerships, and what more needs to be done?"

JO: I couldn’t agree with that more, Willy. Agricultural development is complex and inextricably intertwined with the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. The only way we’ll create sustainable impact at scale is by developing and strengthening all parts of the ecosystem through collaboration.

At Hello Tractor, we believe in the words of Henry Ford, that “if everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” We are fortunate to have incredible partners, both public and private, who share our belief that market-based solutions can improve the lives of smallholder farmers. Organizations such as USAID, the World Bank, and CIMMYT have been critical. Their strategic guidance and support has allowed us to scale our solution and de-risk our entry into new markets, enabling us to serve more smallholders.

 Hello Tractor's Founder, Jehiel Oliver, speaks at the 2017 Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, DC. (PHOTO: HELLO TRACTOR)

Hello Tractor's Founder, Jehiel Oliver, speaks at the 2017 Global Food Security Symposium in Washington, DC. (PHOTO: HELLO TRACTOR)

We also recently embarked on an exciting new public-private partnershipwith John Deere and the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development to deploy 10,000 tractors over the next five years. The government will implement a pay-as-you-go model that allows tractors to be leased to new owners over a defined period of time, before being resold to them at a discount. Hello Tractor will serve as an implementation partner, providing tractor monitoring, security, and valuation support. These tractors are estimated to bring 9 million hectares of land into production, creating 37 million metric tons of additional food and more than 2 million direct and indirect jobs. Given the fact that the youth population is far outpacing employment opportunities on the continent, this will have a huge impact. These are outcomes that never would have been possible without cross-sector collaboration.

More and more, we’re seeing a willingness across public, private, and nonprofit stakeholders to explore new, innovative models to address mechanization challenges in emerging markets. As a sector, we need to capitalize on this momentum by being willing to think outside the box and leverage technology to increase efficiency and our impact.

WF: What's next for Hello Tractor?

JO: The sky's the limit! We have a number of new initiatives in the pipeline that we’re excited about.

We just launched the new version of our mobile app with expanded features for tractor owners and booking agents, including: customizable activity reports, fleet and farm mapping, fuel notifications, enhanced booking management, operator ratings, and weather forecasting to inform service delivery. These enhancements will help drive efficiency and information access that is critical for operations.

We’ve also recently launched a Web-based platform to connect our booking agents and smallholders to best practices in mechanized agriculture. Through this type of knowledge sharing, we believe we can drive increased productivity and yields for the farmers who stand to benefit from those improvements the most. Over time, we plan to integrate mobile and interactive voice response technology within the platform, to maximize accessibility.

We’re incredibly proud of our impact so far, but we can’t stop here. We’ve challenged ourselves to grow across Nigeria, as well as other smallholder-dominant markets in Africa and Asia, with the goal of providing mechanization access to 15 million farmers by 2022. But ultimately, we’re doing all of this because we intend to create a model that can scale and sustain itself—a model that guarantees farmers can access the products and services they need for generations to come.

By Willy Foote, Founder and CEO of Root Capital.