“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.