Hello Tractor: How a Nobel winner inspired our ‘Uber for farmers’

Jehiel Oliver

Jehiel Oliver, then a financial expert working in the United States, was getting restless.

He wanted a new challenge whose impact would be felt by a significant portion of the population.

In his search for impact, he travelled to diverse locations, including Afghanistan, and read widely.

One of the books that spoke to him in an especially significant way was Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty, the story of Mohammad Yunus.

Yunus set up a bank in Bangladesh to lend tiny sums to the poorest of the poor in the country, those shunned by banks that saw no business case in lending to this segment of society.

By going against the grain, Yunus ended up founding the multinational Grameen Bank, and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Five years ago, Oliver found the perfect way to apply the lessons learned from Yunus.

He focused on Africa’s smallholder farmers who struggle to access credit and farm inputs, and have to contend with high labour costs.

The mission

In 2014, Oliver launched Hello Tractor, a service similar to the global taxi hailing service Uber – except that it mainly operates in rural smallholder farms and largely deals with tractors.

In general terms, the service aims to connect smallholder farmers to tractor owners, and then improve access to related services, such as farm inputs, valuable agricultural data and improved credit scores.

Nigeria was the first country to pilot the project, and so far, there are 1,500 tractors on the platform.

The service was launched in Kenya in August 2018, with at least 250 tractors expected to be on the platform by the end of the current planting season.

With the help of Nairobi-based IBM Research Lab, Hello Tractor aims to deliver new services for the agriculture value chain.

With the partnership, participants such as farmers, financial institutions, Government agencies and tractor owners can make use of the data collected on tractor maintenance, fleet utilisation, operator rankings, farm yield forecasting and microfinancing.

“Tech-based agricultural practices is what will turn local farmers into bankable individuals, as they will have the tools to mitigate against extreme weather conditions, while reducing overhead costs,” says Oliver.

To attain this vision, the platform addresses the entire farming process, including tilling, harrowing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

“Sixty per cent of farming in Africa is done using manual labour and is more expensive than using tractors. Paying workers Sh600 or Sh700 a day for 30 days ends up being more expensive than a tractor that may cost Sh6,000 or Sh7,000 for a few hours,” says Oliver.

“We need to connect available tractors to farmers, who can then maximise their yields by harnessing modern technology.”

Beyond farming

During the interview with Oliver at IBM’s research lab at the Catholic University of East Africa in Karen, scientists took Hustle through several technologies that are driving the agriculture digital wallet. These include artificial intelligence, blockchain, the Internet of Things and cloud-based solutions.

Monitoring devices installed on tractors that are connected to the Hello Tractor cloud can pinpoint each vehicle’s location and how long it’s been there. This helps field agents connect farmers to available tractors.

When combined with analytics and blockchain, such data can be used to develop a credit score for loans, says Oliver.

In addition, weather data can be used to help smallholder farmers know when to plant, what to plant, quality of farm cultivation, appropriate fertiliser, and land topography.

“Research shows that 50 per cent of the yield gap is due to a lack of mechanised farming, while the other half is due to a lack of farm inputs,” says Oliver. “We’re developing a system that will make the farmer have a business mind and appeal to lenders. For example, the lender can see current and historical data pertaining to a farmer’s cumulative yield or tractor utilisation and make immediate credit decisions.”

On the other hand, tractor owners and dealers can manage their current and future fleet, and predict maintenance needs and after-sales services.

The challenges

The rollout of the service has not been without challenges, however.

Just as Oliver was launching in Nigeria, the country went into a two-year recession.

“We soldiered on and now have an equivalent of 10 per cent of tractors sold on the continent on our platform in that country,” he says.

“In Kenya, we hope to build trust in both farmers and tractor owners. The challenge we have here is that there are not that many tractors in the field. Like other countries on the continent, banks hardly lend to farmers due to the many risks associated with farming.”

Oliver says African governments can help stem the tide by insuring farmers and their crops. This, he says, will make local farmers compete on the same level with those in developed nations who are heavily subsidised by their governments.

According to IBM, governments can utilise the data available for actionable insights into various options, including structuring incentives, enforcing regulations, prioritising investments in the sector and long-term policy decisions.  

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