Smallholder farmers don’t have the machinery they need to fully cultivate their land. Tractors and other farm equipment are expensive and financing is virtually nonexistent. But if farmers have access to a tractor, that’s as good as owning one. That’s why I started Hello Tractor. Our platform connects tractor owners to their fleets using our IoT technology and places their equipment in our marketplace where farmers can book the services they need, through our digital apps.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jehiel Oliver.
Jehiel Oliver is the founder and CEO of Hello Tractor where he is responsible for overall management and strategy. He has been honored with numerous awards for his work in social entrepreneurship, including being recognized by Foreign Policy Magazine as a Top 100 Global Thinker for 2016. He was appointed under the Obama Administration to serve two years as a member of the President’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa, where he most recently chaired the technology subcommittee. Prior to Hello Tractor, Jehiel worked in consulting and investment banking. He currently lives with his wife and two daughters in Nairobi, Kenya.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
In my first career out of college, I worked in real estate investment banking. Leading up to the global financial crisis of 2008, I could see very clearly how this crisis was created because of greed. Those who were damaged most were those who were victimized by a process that put profit over people. The evidence was all around me; foreclosed condos, boarded up homes and a growing resentment towards those that profited from the destruction of hardworking family’s savings and assets. It was during this time that I became keenly interested in blending profit and impact. This led me to micro-finance and how this industry was supporting underserved communities using innovative approaches to commercial lending. I began asking myself questions like what creates sustainability? Who knows best what is needed for a community to become sustainable? What kind of assistance can be provided and who should deliver the service? How can I make a difference? These were questions that were driving me to seek out alternative approaches to economic development.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
I believe our work is disruptive in two key ways:
- Smallholder farmers don’t have the machinery they need to fully cultivate their land. Tractors and other farm equipment are expensive and financing is virtually nonexistent. But if farmers have access to a tractor, that’s as good as owning one. That’s why I started Hello Tractor. Our platform connects tractor owners to their fleets using our IoT technology and places their equipment in our marketplace where farmers can book the services they need, through our digital apps. Most buyers of low-horsepower tractors purchase these assets as an income-generating business opportunity. Our technology makes it easier and less risky for tractor owners to run these businesses, while connecting smallholder farmers to machinery that lets them plant 40 times faster and at one-third the cost.
- The second way that we are disruptive is the way in which we are challenging the status quo in technology. Hello Tractor was built from the ground up using a talented team of Black engineers and data scientists from Nigeria, Kenya, and the U.S. Black technical teams are often overlooked because of the inherent bias in the tech industry. The irony is that many of our engineers and data scientists have a fuller understanding of the problems we are looking to solve as they come from the communities that we want to service. They understand the problems deeply and they are committed to finding the solutions.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When Hello Tractor launched in 2014, our flagship product was an affordable, ultra-low horsepower, two-wheel tractor fitted with our monitoring technology. The guidance we received from some of the top researchers and professionals in the US was that these small machines did incredibly well in Asia and would in turn do well in Africa. We took this advice and began selling them to enterprising farmers, cooperatives, and entrepreneurs who then accessed our tractor-sharing platform to identify and service additional demand from smallholders that we were organizing.
Great in theory? Yes. Great in practice? Not at that time. The Nigerian economy slipped into a two-year recession soon after we launched. Credit markets dried up and depreciation of the local currency effectively doubled the price of our tractors, making it impossible for our customers to finance purchases. Perhaps more importantly, we realized that to make it financially attractive for tractor owners to use our platform, the tractors themselves would need to be able to reach more farmers over a wider distance than was feasible for our existing product. In addition to this, the machines used in Asia were primarily focused in wet paddy rice production whereas our customers were using these machines for cassava. The machine just didn’t have the durability for these value chains and created a real headache for our aftersales support team.
So, in 2017, we made the strategic decision to focus more on our applications rather than on the tractors themselves. This has proved a more effective model, enabling us to capture 75% of private commercial tractor inflows to Nigeria, expand to 13 markets across Africa through strategic partnerships and touch the lives of 500,000 farmers. The lesson learned was that the voice of your customer should always be louder than advice from experts.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Around the time when my interest in agricultural technology and sustainability was growing, my aunt Barbara sparked a closer relationship with my great uncle Colon. He had worked for over 30 years at John Deere and as a young man he volunteered at Tuskegee University’s movable school teaching Black sharecroppers and even some ex-slaves about the benefits of agricultural mechanization. Many don’t realize that Tuskegee University, along with a brilliant community extension agent named T.M. Campbell, birthed the U.S. agricultural extension program. This extension program is a core component to US agriculture. It is within this legacy that we are working in our markets to support our farming communities.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
The statement “disruption is always good” is a bit too simplistic. There is an inescapable amount of nuance to consider when industries, communities and marketplaces, are radically changed in short periods of time. Whether this change is good or not is very relative. Our work is disruptive in that it is allowing farmers to grow more productively and earn more income while contributing to food security within their broader community. This, however, comes with consequences. With a more empowered farmer, the middlemen, rent seekers and opportunists across the value chain will be displaced.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
The famed venture capitalist, Chris Dixon of Andreessen Horowitz, has written extensively about a popular strategy in building networks known as “come for the tool, stay for the network.” This strategy involves building a marketplace by first offering a valuable tool for a single market participant. By getting this initial participant deeply engaged, you can get a critical mass that can lead to a competitive advantage in the long term. Hello Tractor has taken this approach in building our marketplace by first starting with the sale of IoT technology to tractor owners who, in the long term, we engage to service farmers in our marketplace, earning them additional revenue.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We are very excited about using data on our platform to identify opportunities to bring finance to underrepresented entrepreneurs. IoT and the insights that we are able to collect can play a vital role in innovative approaches to finance like pay-as-you-go. The ability to track work being completed by a tractor owner as well as the ability to remotely lock and unlock an asset will enable us to de-risk lending and create new opportunities for tractor ownership. This is very exciting from both the financial and social impact dimensions. We’re also excited to have recently joined the Mastercard Start Path startup engagement program to help us grow and scale on this financial inclusion journey.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
“Banker to the Poor” by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus is a book that introduced me to the concept of scalable, commercial solutions to addressing the needs of the global poor. I was inspired by Yunus’ work at Grameen Bank, along with the pioneering work of the late Fazle Abed at BRAC, whom I had the pleasure of working with. These two individuals influenced my career and broadened by perspective on what was possible in innovating for low income communities.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I believe in the words of Henry Ford that, “if everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” I am fortunate to have incredible team members at Hello Tractor who are very passionate about the work and understand very deeply the problems we are trying to solve. We also have great partners, both public and private, who share our belief that market-based solutions can improve the lives of smallholder farmers globally. Partners like Mastercard also share a common vision to bring rural development and impact through mechanisms like financial inclusion.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to see the African diaspora invest more of their time and money into development back home. I am of course biased towards investing in tractors, but there are so many opportunities to do well by doing good via smart remittances and impact investment. In addition to this, the most important resource, of course, is time. Committing oneself to things like mentorship can be hugely impactful.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!