Across sub-Saharan Africa, more than 60 percent of crops are cultivated by hand, affecting the productivity of farmers as well as crop yield. Data cited by Forbes show that there are over 200 million farmers in Africa living on less than $2 a day.
The lack of machinery needed to cultivate farmlands by smallholder farmers has been largely attributed to cost and finance. This is where black American entrepreneur Jehiel Oliver comes in with his initiative some have touted as “Uber-for-tractors.”
Oliver started his career in banking but he was driven to do something meaningful for Africa and that led him to invest in farming. “I’m from the US, and started my professional career in finance,” Oliver told Forbes Africa. “But in [my] mind, I always wanted to do work that was meaningful for my community and I came from parents who were kind of pan-African in their view of the world.”
After quitting the banking field, Oliver went into finance consulting and spent time looking at restructuring investment across the Global South, which ultimately led him into agriculture. According to him, it was during this period that he uncovered the importance of agriculture, inspiring him to launch Hello Tractor. Based in Kenya, Hello Tractor is a smartphone app that connects small-scale farmers with nearby tractor owners. Hello Tractor’s clients are typically small farmers with one to five hectares. Then there are the tractor owners, who could be individuals with one tractor or large companies with more. Farmers could make up to $30,000 in bookings a year on the Hello Tractor platform. Farmers typically connect through booking agents who use the app to register them. Hello Tractor currently has over 3000 tractors and combines on its platform.
“For us, it was about economic growth and prosperity for these African economies,” Oliver told Forbes Africa. “Starting in a rural sector, you have low-income populations underserviced by just about every part of the economy, and seeing an opportunity to commercially serve these economic actors, these farmers, who are also entrepreneurs themselves.
“And to serve them in a way where they can grow their productivity, they can grow their income, they can send their kids to school, and not pull their kids out of school to work the fields.”
According to How We Made It In Africa, tractor owners get paid a deposit to move their tractors to the field and then receive the full amount after service. The platform added that the tractor owners make 90% of the revenue whilst the other 10% goes to the booking agent.
Aside from Kenya, Hello Tractor works in Nigeria, where mechanization is also very low. Oliver noted that he was attracted to Nigeria not only because of low mechanization on farms but also because of the country’s market size and the fact that Nigerians are receptive to new ideas.
To launch Hello Tractor, Oliver relied on his savings and investment. “We bootstrapped in the beginning and then I exhausted my savings,” he said, adding that he raised “a bit of money”, less than $2 million. The bulk of the money, he noted, was paid back to the investors with interest.