Jahiel Oliver applied to participate in this year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi like any other delegate.
But, a few hours to the official opening, he got some good news -- he would be among three young entrepreneurs sharing the stage with presidents Barack Obama and Uhuru Kenyatta. The other two were Kenyan Judith Owigar of Akirachix and Croatian Josipa Majic.
At the stage, Mr Oliver, 33, talked briefly about his company — Hello Tractor — a social venture that is slowly changing farming in Africa, one tractor at a time.
Hello Tractor is a Nigerian-based company that links small-scale farmers with ‘smart tractors’. A farmer simply sends a text into a cloud of information and is immediately paired with the nearest smart tractor owner.
Although Mr Oliver is an American, he moved to Nigeria seven months ago to start Hello Tractor. He chose the West African country because it is the largest untapped market for agricultural technology.
Nigeria ranks 132 out of 188 countries surveyed on agricultural mechanisation. Further, the farm sizes in Nigeria are so small that it is hard for individual farmers to own a tractor.
“In Nigeria, we’ve about 28 million small farmers - mostly women -relying on hired labour that is expensive, inefficient and not readily available. What this means is that crops are planted late, land is under-cultivated and these farmers lose income,” he said.
The smart tractor provides a service that is 40 times faster than manual labour at a third the cost, saving on time and improving the yields.
“The smart tractor is a two-wheeled tractor with GPS antennae that allows us to track its usage and telematics, which collects and transfers data in no Internet areas such as the rural areas,” he said.
The business idea was born while he was working in his previous job as global finance consultant focused on SMEs and agricultural industries at Aya Consulting, a US-based organisation.
SIX MONTHS OF RESEARCH
“I was hosting a seminar at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines when I came up with this idea of having commercial approaches to reach low income farmers in South Asia. The idea was so good and I thought it might work in Africa,” he says.
What followed was six months of research, consulting and fine-tuning an idea that he was convinced would turn around the lives of small-scale farmers in poor countries. “When I thought it was good enough to do full-time, I quit consulting and focused on Hello Tractor,” he says.
Although the start-up was started slightly over a year ago, it has made remarkable progress, but not without challenges. The initial plan was to have farmers in need of a tractor send a text to their booking system or ‘cloud’ and pre-pay using mobile money.
“That would work in Kenya where you have deep penetration of M-Pesa but in Nigeria, it doesn’t work because we don’t have the penetration of mobile money,” he says.
However, Hello Tractor has made great strides in helping farmers improve their yields. And for farmers who initially thought that owning a tractor was uneconomical now have a chance of earning an extra coin because the machines have a wide market.
“We will sell that farmer one of our tractors and even provide financing for that purchase. We also connect the farmer with farmers seeking tractor services so that they can earn extra income to make tractor ownership affordable and repay their loan,” he says.
The tractors are currently made in China, although having a manufacturing unit is high on this entrepreneur’s list: “We want to grow Hello Tractor and establish a native manufacturing, create jobs and support industries around that,” he says.
Meeting US President Barack Obama backstage moments before they shared a stage was a historic for Mr Oliver. “I respect Obama as a man that I look up to as a role model. I was overwhelmed. I have so much respect for him,” he says.