Jehiel Oliver doesn’t mince words.
“Manual farm work sucks,” he says bluntly, describing the work of farmers who don’t have access to equipment like tractors. “Imagine being in 100-degree heat, with a little hand tool with a short handle, digging through hard, stony soil for hours every day for 30 to 40 days straight.”
Meanwhile, Oliver realized, the same labor that could be done in a month manually could be accomplished in a day if independent farmers in poor areas of the world could access the right tools.
That’s where the entrepreneurial seed was planted.
In 2014, Oliver founded Hello Tractor in Washington, D.C. Hello Tractor’s technology has been hailed the “Uber for tractors,” with an on-demand app that aggregates tractor requests and helps equipment owners (or contractors) rent out tractors (and earn extra revenue) on tractors that would otherwise be sitting idle in a shed.
This tractor-sharing platform addresses some long-standing challenges in poor countries with underused fertile land, which also have a due to a rapidly aging farmer population and a youth population moving to cities. Hello Tractor aims to fill the labor gap while offering mechanization that drastically improves the time and cost spent on farming — not to mention, quality of life.
Oliver, who grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, studied economics at Cornell University and forayed into investment banking. However, he knew that his time in banking was temporary. “I come from a long line of hippies,” Oliver says. “I knew I had to spend my time in a meaningful area, but I also knew that there are certain skill sets that you need.”
It was a book Banker to the Poor by Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhuammad Yunus that inspired his pivot to Hello Tractor. He learned about Yunus’ experience as an economics professor who pioneered the concept of microfinancing, or providing loans to the poor. Oliver knew he wanted to blend his expertise in economics with social impact.
After doing some research, Oliver quickly turned his attention to Nigeria, one of the world’s least mechanized farming countries. The majority of Nigeria’s farmers are poor, small-holding farmers, most unable to afford a tractor. “Agriculture is where the global poor earn their money,” he explains, “but the banks didn’t typically lend in agriculture.”
Initially, Oliver set out to manufacture low-cost tractors (at $4,000 a tractor compared to the average $40,000) to sell to farmers in Nigeria along with the tractor-sharing technology. He moved to Nigeria to set up shop in 2015, and not long after, a recession hit the country — the cost of manufacturing doubled, forcing him to rethink his business model. At the start of 2017, Hello Tractor dropped the manufacturing arm and focused on selling the tractor-sharing technology to well-established tractor companies, like John Deere and Mahindra.
The app not only pairs and books tractors with jobs, but its tractor monitoring technology enables stakeholders to easily demonstrate how responsibly and efficiently the equipment is being used. This added feature has paved the way for Hello Tractor’s partner companies, like John Deere, to work closely with banks to create low-interest loans for parties who might otherwise have difficulty in getting loans, Jason Brantley, managing director in sub-Saharan Africa for John Deere, told Fast Company. John Deere has recently partnered with Hello Tractor to contract 10,000 of its tractors in Nigeria.
Oliver’s ties to John Deere and tractors take him full circle. His great uncle worked for a John Deere dealership in Alabama in the early 1900s. On weekends, he would volunteer at the historically black Tuskegee University in Alabama, “teaching ex-sharecroppers and ex-slaves about the benefits of mechanization,” says Oliver. “[He taught them] how to fix tractors, how to operate tractors and how to access tractor services.”