It’s Like Uber for Tractors, and It Could Change the Game for African Farmers

Instead of taking out a high-interest loan to buy machinery, this start-up is connecting locals to farming implements via text message.

A farmer operates his tractor outside Abuja, Nigeria. (Photo: Flickr)

Aug 5, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Three minutes into my conversation with Jehiel Oliver, CEO of Hello Tractor, the line goes dead. When I call back, he’s already laughing.

“Welcome to West African communication,” he said. “That’ll happen three more times during this call.” He’s right (the third time, thankfully, is the charm), but the difficulty drives home only one of the challenges he’s had to overcome in the first year of running his Uber-for-tractors start-up in Nigeria. The networks there are so unreliable that his GPS-equipped Smart Tractors store data locally as well as in the cloud—which might not always be accessible. But that hurdle has been one of the easier ones to clear.

“There’s about 35 million small farmers in Nigeria, and 80 percent of that number, about 28 million, pay for off-farm labor at the same time,” Oliver said. There’s huge demand for labor, but not everyone can pay for high-season help. As a result, those farmers end up planting later, underusing their land and losing out on income. Often, those farmers are women.

Owning a tractor would solve many of those problems with one internal combustion engine—but investing in a John Deere costs far more than a few weeks of worker’s wages. Farmers need loans to pay for a $3,500 tractor, but commercial banks in Nigeria charge 30 percent interest and require repayment within a year, which Oliver likens to paying off a home mortgage in three years. “It doesn’t make any sense,” he said.

So for the past several months he’s been working on structuring affordable financing to interested buyers, and he wants one in three of those new tractor owners to be a woman. Through its mobile app, Hello Tractor connects tractor owners with nearby farmers who request tractor service via SMS text messaging. The new owner drives the tractor to the farm, provides the labor, and is paid $75 per hectare. It costs one-third of what manual cultivation does, and the tractor owner makes a good wage: After fuel, maintenance, and repair costs, as well as loan repayment, she clears about $25. Without the tractor, she makes $5.

There’s not always money on the hiring farmer’s end, either, and Hello Tractor helps connect those farmers with local microfinancing services. Oliver explained that financing challenges like these at every part of the supply chain keep larger companies from investing in rural farming in Nigeria. “The opportunities are there, but it really takes a certain commitment to address all these gaps in the market,” he said.

The results so far are promising. Since Hello Tractor launched in the summer of 2014, farmers who participated in the beta period saw their yields increase by 200 percent using a machine that’s 40 times faster than manual labor. The early success earned Oliver a spot in the 2015 Echoing Green Global Fellowship program, and in late July, he presented Hello Tractor at the Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kenya to a pretty rarefied audience—President Barack Obama.

While Hello Tractor’s goals directly address issues of food and income security, they are also chipping away at embedded cultural ideas about women.

“Uber has made it easier for a black man in New York to hail a cab. You request something through the cloud with no face, and that request is paired with the closest car. It sort of circumvents racism,” Oliver said. The same is true of Hello Tractor: Farmers texting for tractor services don’t know a woman might be the one to drive up to their fields. “When they arrive with that tractor, you’re going to still want that service. This was our way of circumventing the negative gender stereotypes that exist in Nigeria—and they’re really entrenched here.”

When studies say women farmers have yields about 20 to 30 percent less than men’s, it’s not because women are bad at growing things; it’s because they have less access to land, equipment, credit, and services. A report last year from the World Bank and advocacy group ONE found that the inability to mobilize additional labor is the biggest barrier to women’s agricultural output in Africa. On average, women tend to live in smaller households with fewer men and less help. Women are also less likely to be able to afford hired labor or be able to pay as much as their male counterparts. When they can afford it, they may also be less available to supervise hired workers, owing to housework or child care responsibilities. In the end, a woman might have access to five hectares of land but the resources to cultivate only one. The report stressed the importance of expanding female participation in commercial agriculture in Nigeria.

“You sell a woman a tractor—it’s a total game changer,” Oliver said. “She goes out; she makes all this money. She’s better able to support her family; she’s putting her kids through school; she’s feeding those kids. It can transform an entire household, and it’s done in a sustainable way.”