American Jehiel Oliver became known as “that crazy tractor guy” because he uses the latest technology to connect small-scale farmers in Africa with equipment.
Across Africa, most tractors are owned by the government, said Oliver, a 35-year-old businessman from Ohio. This adds layers of bureaucracy and often leaves small-scale farmers without tractors that they need to succeed.
Farmers in Africa may lack access to tractors, but they have mobile phones. (More than half a billion people across that continent subscribe to mobile services, according to a 2016 study from a trade group called GSM Association.)
So Oliver created Hello Tractor.
This is how Hello Tractor works: Farmers text a booking agent, who schedules and dispatches a nearby tractor to till, transport, harvest or otherwise take care of his plot and others nearby that also need care. The tractor can handle up to 30 small plots. Hello Tractor connects and maps small farms, collects data on what’s growing where, can deliver fertilizer and other necessities, and even indicates when a tractor needs maintenance.
Oliver said the small tractors allow farmers to bring more land into cultivation, and also create jobs. He figures that each tractor creates approximately 4.1 jobs, including operators, technicians and booking agents.
“How often can you say, ‘I’m making a lot of money, while leaving a really deep, positive impact on my customers,'” asked Oliver, who grew up in a poor community in East Cleveland. His Hello Tractor company is headquartered in southeast Washington, where unemployment and poverty rates are higher than the rest of the city.
Oliver strives to create opportunities. He employs a few people in Washington and close to two dozen in Nigeria. “The cure for cancer could be somewhere on the East side of Cleveland, where I grew up,” Oliver said. “The next young scientist, she could be sitting in rural Nigeria.”
A new model
Concentrating on customers in Africa has helped set Hello Tractor apart. “You have to meet people’s needs,” Oliver said, explaining that farmers in Africa before had to rely on products built for other markets. He hopes to expand into Bangladesh, Burma and other parts of Southeast Asia.
Tips for entrepreneurs
“Don’t follow the headlines — follow your customer.” Hello Tractor took off because it listened, Oliver said. When he started out, his company built its own tractor model. Investors loved it. The media loved it. But Oliver said customers didn’t. So they improved.
Farmers wanted new features built into the tractors’ computer software. Oliver’s team built them out.
One problem Oliver often sees is people trying to copy existing products. “If you chase headlines, you’ll always be a few steps behind the leader.”
If you follow people in your community, Oliver said, you are positioned to build and tailor the best solutions.
The world’s food supply will need to double by 2050 to meet the needs of a growing population. And Hello Tractor wants to be part of a revolution in agricultural tech. “We’ll either be successful at this, or the world won’t feed itself,” he said.