Agriculture is the mainstay of many economies in Africa. Although the commercialization of Agriculture is widespread in western countries, farming practices in Africa are largely at the subsistence stage. While mechanization of agriculture in Africa remains a challenge, one entrepreneur has stepped in to fill the gap.
Taking inspiration from the ride-hailing app Uber, Jehiel Oliver introduced Hello Tractor, a smartphone app that connects small farm holders to tractor owners looking to rent. The technology, which has been touted as “Uber for tractors” was first launched in Nigeria and has since expanded to countries beyond Africa.
“In smallholder farming systems, collaborative consumption is the only way to make tractors affordable. It makes no sense for an individual farmer to own a tractor,” Oliver told Howwemadeitinafrica. “But if you can share a tractor, the cost of the service is significantly less than you would pay a human to do the same work.” It’s also faster, more efficient and produces higher yields.
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Although the initiative initially started well, there were some mishaps along the way. He told Forbes that for the first two years that they struggled because they were selling heavy equipment, which was outside of their business model. However, the mishap became a valuable lesson to Oliver.
In Nigeria, Hello Tractor started with 500 tractors on its platform, which was about 75% of all tractors in the West African country. “Then we started to branch out from Nigeria, [and] that led to where we are now…a couple thousand tractors on the platform and a pretty large deal with John Deere.”
Oliver said he was inspired to start Hello tractor because smallholder farmers in Africa don’t have the machinery they need to fully cultivate their land. Smallholder farmers don’t have the machinery they need to fully cultivate their land, he says.
“But I realized, if farmers have access to a tractor, that’s as good as owning one. That’s why I started Hello Tractor,” told Forbes. Besides connecting tractor owners to farmers, Oliver says his firm also provides some tools to enhance a tractor owner’s business and operations.
Explaining how the App works, he said tractors are installed with a hardware monitoring device which is fitted with GPS and an international SIM card. “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,” Oliver explains how the app works.
Hello Tractor has expanded to eight additional African countries aside from Nigeria and Kenya. Oliver has also expanded his firm to the Asia market. He hopes to profit from the Asia market to subsidize for its operations in Africa. For instance, in India, 730,000 tractors were sold in 2019 as opposed to only 14,000 on the entire African continent. This offers Hello Tractors an opportunity to enlist more tractor owners on its platform to as to connect them with small farmers in India and across Asia.
Due to distrust for technology, Hello Tractor has recruited and trained its own network of booking agents to help reach farmers in need of tractor service. He has also partnered with different organizations and outreach agencies and 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.
Speaking on current challenges of the company, Oliver cited currency volatility and also the COVID-19 pandemic. “We started the company during the Ebola epidemic and now we’re in the midst of Covid-19. The way you mitigate these risks is to protect cash flow, move slowly, tighten your belt and taper some of your growth plans to weather the storm,” Oliver said.
Another challenge is human resources, Oliver said. According to him, “Hiring experienced technical managers within the markets where the company operates hasn’t always been possible. People are committed but not always experienced at the senior level,” he said. “It’s hard to find people who are comfortable managing those high-level relationships.”