Uber’s ride-sharing technology has become ubiquitous over the last 10 years, and its model has been adapted to everything from snow-plowing to dog-walking services. Now, social entrepreneur Jehiel Oliver and his organization, Hello Tractor, have demonstrated another use: fighting poverty and scarcity in Africa’s remote rural communities.
That fight is especially critical for the continent’s youth. Less than a quarter of the more than 350 million young Africans who will enter the labor force by 2035 will find formal wage employment. That demographic bulge could have scary implications for Africa and the world. Surging youth populations can easily push fragile nations to the brink, driving food insecurity, migration, and violent extremism. But, correctly harnessed, they can also offer an opportunity for accelerated economic transformation of the whole continent. Earlier this year, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs produced a report (for which Jehiel and I served on the task force) examining how the agricultural sector—the single largest employer of young people in sub-Saharan Africa—can be a key driver of this change.
But how do you sell agriculture as a meaningful career for young people? Hello Tractor, founded in 2014, is helping illuminate one path: By cutting down on the labor and the drudgery long associated with farming, they’re making it more attractive and more lucrative for the next generation. In just a few short years, the organization has reached more than 250,000 smallholder African farmers. I sat down with Jehiel Oliver to discuss how market-based solutions can create impact at scale, how technology offers a path out of poverty for African youth, and why his business is so much more than just “Uber for the farm.”
WILLY FOOTE: What gave you the idea to found Hello Tractor?
JEHIEL OLIVER: Across sub-Saharan Africa, 220 million farmers live on less than $2 a day. Many of them struggle to produce enough food to feed their families and sustain their livelihoods. My experience working in global finance and agriculture brought me to frontier markets where I saw this firsthand.
Smallholder farmers don’t have the machinery they need to fully cultivate their land. Tractors and farm equipment are expensive, and financing is virtually nonexistent. But I realized, 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 farmers through a digital app. Most buyers of compact 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 at one-third the cost.