How Jehiel Oliver and Hello Tractor are unlocking farming capacities in Africa

BY Ben Ebuka Oji February 5, 2024 3:26 PM EDT
Jehiel Oliver
President Barack Obama and Jehiel Oliver at the 6th annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Kenya in 2018, co-hosted by President Barack Obama (U.S.) and President Uhuru Kenyatta (Kenya). Photo Credit: White House/Pete Souza

Africa has the most extensive supply of cultivable land globally; however, its crop yields fall behind other regions. Approximately half of this disparity can be attributed to the absence of mechanization. The Economist reports that in sub-Saharan Africa, 60% of crops are manually plowed, consequently affecting farmers’ productivity and crop output. Consequently, it is not surprising that more than 220 million farmers in Africa survive on less than $2 per day.

Nevertheless, to address these challenges, Oliver has ventured out of his comfort zone in America and relocated to Kenya to assist smallholder farmers.

“I’m from the US, and started my professional career in finance,” Oliver says. “But in [my] mind, I always wanted to do work that was meaningful for my community and I came from parents who were kind of pan-African in their view of the world.”

Oliver later left the banking system and transitioned into the consulting space, but still focused on finance-related matters, where he delved into deal structuring for funds that invested in various regions of the Global South. This endeavor eventually steered him towards the agriculture sector.

“That’s where I uncovered the importance of agriculture, the role it plays in Africa’s economy and future economic growth,” Oliver says.

Oliver emphasizes that smallholder farmers face challenges in accessing the necessary machinery for efficient cultivation. The high cost of tractors and farm equipment, coupled with the lack of available financing options, further exacerbates this issue.

Oliver established Hello Tractor in 2014, a company specializing in agricultural technology. The main objective of this company is to connect tractor owners with smallholder farmers who require tractor services. Oliver recognized the potential for technology to assist farmers who can’t afford to buy a tractor to get one and pay for the usage. Through a farm-equipment-sharing app, Hello Tractor facilitates the connection between tractor owners and smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia. This app enables farmers to effectively manage and monitor their fleets, book customers, and explore financing options. In addition to providing access to machinery, Hello Tractor also serves as a platform where customers can generate up to $30,000 in bookings annually.

“For us, it was about economic growth and prosperity for these African economies,” Oliver adds, “starting in a rural sector, you have low-income populations underserviced by just about every part of the economy, and seeing an opportunity to commercially serve these economic actors, these farmers, who are also entrepreneurs themselves.

“And to serve them in a way where they can grow their productivity, they can grow their income, they can send their kids to school, and not pull their kids out of school to work the fields.”

Since its inception, Hello Tractor has managed to attract a larger number of farmers to its platform compared to the number of tractors available to serve them. With a fleet of 3,000 tractors and combine harvesters, Hello Tractor has been able to cater to the needs of 630,000 smallholder farmers.

Oliver’s innovative approach to addressing the challenges faced by farmers has garnered significant attention and support on a global scale. Heifer International, a renowned nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating hunger and poverty, has generously provided Hello Tractor with $4.5 million in philanthropic capital, including a recoverable grant that functions as a zero-interest loan. This financial support from Heifer has served as seed capital for Hello Tractor to expand its tractor financing product. As a result, private sector investors such as John Deere have also shown interest in investing in Hello Tractor’s mission.

In August 2022, Hello Tractor received a minority investment from Deere & Company (NYSE: DE).

“John Deere sees this as an opportunity to support Hello Tractor’s innovative work to provide technologies and solutions to agricultural entrepreneurs in Africa and Asia,” said Jason Brantley, Director, Ag & Turf Sales & Marketing – Africa and Asia, at John Deere. “Hello Tractor’s work also aligns with the John Deere Strategy and the Ag & Turf Division’s Leap Ambitions to ensure 100% of new Small Ag equipment is connectivity-enabled by 2026.”

“The partnership between Hello Tractor and John Deere has been building since our participation in John Deere’s Startup Collaborator program,” said Jehiel Oliver, Hello Tractor founder. “We look forward to continuing to work together to ultimately help drive better economic outcomes for smallholder farmers.”

Hello Tractor has been able to introduce and expand a new innovative service, thanks to the support from Heifer International and John Deere. This service is a pay-as-you-go tractor financing product, which allows farmers, equipment booking agents, and other entrepreneurs to own tractors. Through the Hello Tractor platform, tractor owners can generate up to $30,000 in bookings annually. The main objective is to assist Hello Tractor customers, who may not qualify for traditional loans, to establish their creditworthiness through the platform. This enables them to make smaller payments over time for agricultural equipment, rather than paying the full amount upfront.

“We created innovative underwriting standards to profile borrowers, looking at booking activity on the platform, and selecting high performers to graduate to become tractor owners,” Oliver said in a session at SXSW where he appeared alongside Adesuwa Ifedi, Heifer’s senior vice president of Africa programs.

Over time, the new service has assisted over 104 customers who utilize the pay-as-you-go model, funded the acquisition of 300 tractors, and successfully introduced mechanization to nearly 5,000 farmers.

Oliver’s remarkable contributions to social entrepreneurship have earned him multiple accolades, such as being acknowledged by Foreign Policy Magazine as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers and being selected as a founding member of the World Economic Forum Circulars. During the Obama Administration, he was appointed to the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa, where he served for two years and recently chaired the technology subcommittee.