By the end of this century, while most geographies are projected to level off their population rates (or even decline), there is one region that is expected to triple the number of its inhabitants.
By 2100, five of its nations will be among the top ten most populated countries in the world, with one pushing the United States into fourth place.
As a continent, it will have a whole lot of people to feed, no doubt. But a nagging question is, will it have the means to do so?
Earlier this century it had a food import bill at $43 billion (and speculated to rise to as much as $90 billion by 2030) to nourish its burgeoning population, but trends are showing that food imports may actually be flattening out while exports for many of its countries are on the rise. In fact, it’s said that if this continent could maximize the potential of its arable lands, it could add 20% more grains and cereals to the world’s supply. Some are even optimistically calling it the next breadbasket.
As a continent, Africa has the makings of a farmer’s paradise. Over 42% of the continent, exclusive of the Sahara Desert, is arable land, and 60% of the population are smallholder farmers. Though there are several factors that will play a part in accelerating Africa’s potential agricultural elevation (such as investments, irrigation, storage, etc.), one key aspect is to ensure that access to heavy farming machinery can get into the hands of farmers who may be unbanked or otherwise lack the capital necessary to buy their own equipment.
To have a successful farm, you need the right equipment to produce at a revenue-generating scale. But without revenues, you can’t buy the equipment you need.
No equipment, no crops. No crops, no equipment. So how do you crack this catch 22?
The brainchild of American expatriate Jehiel Oliver, Hello Tractor is a Kenya-based enterprise that’s been called the “Uber of Tractors”. The way it works is simple: using an equipment sharing app, it connects farmers who need tractors with tractor owners willing to rent out theirs. Farmers get access to heavy equipment as needed, and tractor owners generate a revenue stream.
Recently honored on Fortune magazine’s Change the World List, Hello Tractor is revolutionizing how farming gets done in Africa. Jehiel himself has received numerous honors, including being appointed by the Obama Administration as the chair of the technology subcommittee of the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa. I sat down with Jehiel to discuss the amazing path he has been on since launching Hello Tractor and the lessons he’s learned as an innovator along the way.
You were raised in Cleveland, attended college at Florida A&M and graduate school in Cornell. Your background is in banking. What inspired you to pick up and enter a different market (farming) on a different continent? And how did you make the local connections you needed to get Hello Tractor up and running?
OLIVER: I knew I wanted to do important and meaningful work, but I knew I needed the right skillset. Banking was a natural place for me to pick up a skill that could be applied to bigger issues and challenges. I did that for five years or so. While working during the financial crisis, I started to investigate microfinance. At that time, my mom shared a book on microfinance called Banker to the Poor. It was written by Mohammed Yunus who won the Nobel Peace Prize because of his work in microfinance and banking.
I was intrigued by Yunus’ ability to take this commercial model of banking but apply it to these really low-income populations. I decided after reading the book that this was the career for me. I started doing pro bono work, just helping people with deal structuring and financial modeling. After I worked pro bono on an M&A deal in microfinance, somebody offered me a contract to work full time in Afghanistan.
I was fed up with my day job by that point, so I said, “Okay, I’m going to Afghanistan.” That’s when I launched my full-time career in emerging markets and high-impact development work. While working in microfinance, I observed that the global poor work on the farm; that’s how they earn their income, and microfinance wasn’t doing a particularly good job as an industry in addressing their needs. I started investigating how to use commercial levers to address the needs of the poor. That’s how I came up with the idea for Hello Tractor.
Fast forward a few steps. I started working in consulting in agriculture; I went to graduate school to formalize my education around agriculture, and then I founded Hello Tractor. I saw Hello Tractor as an opportunity to bring a high-value service to growers but do it in a commercial way so we could sustain and scale to solve the problem at scale. That’s how I got into agriculture.
We decided to start the company in Nigeria. I picked Nigeria because it’s the biggest economy in Africa. It also has the largest inventory of uncultivated farmland on earth. There’s a huge need for mechanization. I knew that it was one of those markets that if you get it right there, you could easily go beyond Nigeria and scale into new countries. It’s like the song about New York – if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. Nigeria’s like the New York of Africa.
A good friend of mine from graduate school introduced me to a family friend who was advising Nigeria’s minister of agriculture. That was my first connection in the country, and just that connection led to five other connections, which then led to 25. It was a real web of networks that started to build until I had enough of a network to feel comfortable starting the company and moving my family. We’ve been here seven years now.
Hello Tractor entered into a partnership with John Deere a couple of years ago, providing both John Deere and farmers access to usage data. How has that data been used in the two years since, to the benefit of both?
OLIVER: We’re very protective of our customer data. While we work with John Deere, we’re very careful to not share identifiable information with them, or anyone else for that matter. We work with a lot of different companies, but we want to protect our farmers’ data. We also want to protect our tractor owners, and there’s two sides to our market. We have the farmers who receive the services, and we have the tractor owners who deliver those services as small entrepreneurs.
We don’t share the data, but what we’ve done is as a company we’ve ingested our own data and developed things like our pay-as-you-go tractor financing product. The data provides us with that deeper understanding of the revenue potential of a tractor in a given market, what farms are serviceable and what farms might be higher risk.
We developed the financial product to deepen the credit markets and actually get loans to traditionally un-banked people. Fifty percent of them are women who were booking tractors for farmers as kind of an entrepreneurial job. They have grown such a network of farms that they themselves can now own their own equipment. We’re using our data models to underwrite those individuals. They don’t need a down payment; they don’t need credit or banking histories. We’re truly looking at the strength of their business, using our data insights to make credit approvals, and we’re giving fairly large loans to people who otherwise make just a few thousand dollars a year.
I think that’s just incredible because we’re using that depth of knowledge on the asset level to say, “Based on the farmers in your network, and based on your booking performance over the last few years, you should actually be a tractor owner, not just the middleman or middle woman organizing the demand.” It’s the data insights that help us select the right borrowers to ensure we minimize defaults. It’s really more about using our data to train our models, but we don’t share data directly. There’s probably some business in that, but we just wouldn’t do it, and partners like John Deere appreciate that as this aligns with their policies as well.
People talk about how innovation is all about failing fast, failing often and learning from failure. Conversely, at a conference I’ve heard you say that there is low appetite for risk by failures in your market, because failure could mean losing a growing season, which could mean losing the farm. How do you balance innovation with the very high risk of failure in your business?
OLIVER: We have to be much more methodical about what we test, and who we expose to that risk. I’ll give you an example. We would not test a new mechanization technology on a farmer’s field; we just wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. We would isolate that to test farms or something like that because if the outcome of that technology is a poor season, again, you can lose the farm. We also run incremental tests on things like farmer acquisition across the last mile, so we’ll do a lot of marketing tests, A/B tests, digital marketing across all the channels that we all know well – those are lower risk tests.
There’s also an interesting dynamic in agriculture where, unlike most industries, because it’s so seasonal you can assume that each farmer has about 40 seasons in them across a lifetime. That’s like 40 data points per customer. If you keep that customer for life, that’s 40 data points that you can test from that customer. You don’t really have the option to fail fast. You are forced into a much slower, more thoughtful testing environment because the innovation cycles are so much longer.
In farming, you can test once a year per user, so you have to be selective. I think one of the insights that we had was by having a broader geographic footprint, it allowed us to test across different countries and within each country, different agro-ecological zones.
This means you can actually test more frequently, and test throughout the year because within each zone, you have different times where farmers plant and there are unique planting behaviors. Our insight was that we can increase our testing cycles by bouncing from market to market. In central Nigeria, the testing might start in March but then when you get to April, we might be in western Kenya. By June, we might for example be in southern Uganda. That allows us to increase the frequency of testing throughout the year, but in different geographies.
That’s actually not different from what Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in agronomy, kickstarted with the Green Revolution. His insight was if you have research stations spread throughout Mexico, you could test three times more than having a research station in just one place. He was able to do three times more research than everybody else, and it was three times more successful. That’s actually the insight that we borrowed from him, as a pioneering crop scientist, but applied this to technology and mechanization.
What’s next for Hello Tractor? What innovations, expansions, aspirations or pivots can we expect to see in the future?
OLIVER: We’re going to continue to grow the tractor finance profile space. We developed that product to address the pent-up demand for tractor service in our marketplace. The need for mechanization is a multibillion-dollar need, and that’s just at a country level. We partnered with Heifer International who seeded this product with an investment that was designed to enable commercial investors to engage with the market at scale.
We are growing our capital base to finance more tractors, but we want to do it in a commercially sustainable way. That means returning principal and interest to our investors. That’s the only way you can really solve the problem of getting the capital markets excited about this. That’s why we are proud about the partnership with John Deere and others. These stakeholders can really transform the entire continent once the opportunity is clear. They certainly have the credibility and the wherewithal, and to get them commercially engaged I think is a great signal to the global market that African agriculture is open for business.
If I’m remembering correctly, you have two daughters. What lessons in innovation and entrepreneurship are you passing along to them?
I would love for my daughters to understand the value of applying their talents to something that they are deeply passionate about. They can do this as entrepreneurs or in some other capacity, but if they are working towards a goal that leaves the world just a bit better than how they inherited it, I would consider them a success.