Technology is profoundly and rapidly changing the way food is produced. In Africa, a growing cohort of entrepreneurs is working on transforming agriculture through digitalization.
These technological advancements are unfolding to meet the needs of small farmers, for the vast majority of Africa’s farmers are smallholder farmers. In fact, smallholder farms account for 80 percent of farms in sub-Saharan Africa. Small farmers in Africa face a wide array of challenges to increasing productivity such as the decline of manual labor availability and young people’s growing interest in other career paths.
Hello Tractor, a Nigerian company, is seeking to fill this labor gap and make agriculture a more appealing career by integrating innovative technology into African farmers’ daily lives.
The Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), a joint institution of the AVP Group of States (Africa, the Caribbean, and the Pacific) and the European Union recently released The Digitalisation of African Agriculture Report. This report provides an overview of the technology landscape in African agriculture and it discusses challenges, predictions, and next steps. Hello Tractor is a featured company in the report where it is cited as the “best-established example” of a sharing-economy business model combining with technology to solve farmers’ problems.
Hello Tractor is working to improve the productivity of small farms through its digital tractor sharing application. Tractor access in Africa is a major barrier to agricultural growth. There are 200 tractors per 100,000 square kilometers globally whereas in Africa there are just 13 tractors per 100,000 square kilometers. Hello Tractor is using IoT technology, or the extension of the internet into physical objects, and artificial intelligence to address this problem.
Hello Tractor’s platform connects farmers in need of tractors and tractor owners. Farmers make accounts, pay an initial fee, and request a tractor for a specific date. Through Hello Tractor, tractor owners offer their tractors for rental and install technology that monitors its use. This service significantly decreases the cost of farming and provides additional income to tractor owners. Using one of Hello Tractor’s tractors can be 40 times more efficient and one-third of the cost of manual labor.
While Hello Tractors’ services are available to farmers of any size, Priscilla Asonibare, Communications Lead at Hello Tractor, says, that “smallholder farmers are reaping the highest benefit from this model”. Asonibare says this is because smallholder farmers face more challenges in acquiring technologies that increase their productivity and income than larger farmers.
In addition to the lack of tractors in much of Africa, many tractor owners are unable to access spare parts in a timely manner. Hello Tractor addresses this issue with their Short Message Service where tractor owners can purchase replacements.
According to Asonibare, ensuring transparency is one of Hello Tractor’s “primary goals.” When tractor owners rent their tractor to a farmer, they can check on the tractor whenever they want. Tractor owners can view “their tractor’s location, route traveled, activities performed, fuel consumed, as well as maintenance requirements and operator performance.”
Hello Tractor is often compared to ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber. Similarly to these services, Hello Tractor allows farmers to review the tractors they rent. Asonibare says this reviewing feature has the dual benefits of helping farmers select the best tractors and giving tractor owners feedback so that they can improve their services.
Hello Tractor collaborates with John Deere to increase its impact. In Nigeria, John Deere is supplying 10,000 tractors while Hello Tractor supports the tractors’ management. The two companies are also creating a network of 500 tractor contractors in Ghana and Kenya. As African agriculture becomes increasingly commercialized, John Deere is seeking to increase its presence on the continent.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) states that the average African farmer is 60 years old, yet 60 percent of Africans are younger than 24 years old. To increase yields in Africa, Asonibare says youth must view farming as an interesting and viable career option. Hello Tractor’s innovative approach to agriculture may attract young people, but Asonibare adds that other measures must be taken to shift the youth’s perception of agriculture. For example, Asonibare says that universities should play a more central role in offering agricultural education programs and promoting farming.
Hello Tractor is symbolic of both the rise of digitization in agriculture and the popularization of sharing economy services. Asonibare says, “the [sharing economy] model can be applied to other agricultural services because it supplements supply shortages, saves costs, and helps build stronger communities.”
If Hello Tractor’s service is implemented throughout sub-Saharan Africa, it could reshape the experience of farming. This initiative may open doors for other aspects of agriculture to be digitalized, hopefully improving the livelihoods of farmers and their families.
Photo courtesy of Hello Tractor.