Jehiel Oliver is a finance guy who wears beautiful finance-guy suits. He is not a farm guy. The only dirt under his fingernails comes from his herb garden in Nairobi, Kenya. “There’s some wilted basil waiting on me,” he said at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Wednesday. But, farm background or not, Oliver is intensely focused on changing life for farmers in Africa.
Oliver’s company, Hello Tractor, connects tractor owners—whether a fleet or a single tractor—with smallhold farmers who don’t own some of farming’s most essential (and very expensive) tools.
“When I left traditional banking, I started working in microfinance,” Oliver said. “I always knew I wanted to do work that was meaningful for me. And working in microfinance, I observed that most of the global poor these banks service, but they didn’t have agricultural products, they don’t lend in agriculture it’s too risky. I thought how can you get resources to these farmers so they can actually get themselves out of poverty?”
That’s when he came up with the idea for Hello Tractor.
“I observed that farmers just don’t have access to tractors across emerging markets. Africa is the least mechanized region on earth,” he said. “As a result of that, the farmers plant late, they under-cultivate their land, and they lose income. They’re trapped in that cycle of poverty.”
Hello Tractor brings tractor owners together with farmers in need of those tools. Think of it as the Uber of tractors but with an IoT (Internet of Things) spin. The company digitizes a space that is traditionally tech-averse, and offers fleet owners intel about fuel use, maintenance, and more on each of the tractors rented through its system. Hello Tractor also offers pay-as-you-go equipment financing to those who want to start their own rental fleet.
“You break that [poverty] cycle by bringing in the resources that they need to increase their productivity and increase the food security in the communities that they live in,” Oliver said. “That was kind of what directed us to attack this problem. The good thing about mechanization is that you’re almost insulated from a lot of the risks in agriculture. You’re not exposed to the weather risks, plant disease, droughts, market risk, [or] price volatility of the underlying commodities being grown because the farmers invest in mechanization up front, and you can build a business around that. And that’s what we did.”
So far, Hello Tractor has facilitated rentals for more than 500,000 farmers in 17 countries.
Oliver started the business in Nigeria because it’s “the biggest economy in Africa,” as well as the most populous, and has the “largest inventory of uncultivated farmland on earth.”
“Nigeria needs to develop agriculture,” Oliver noted.
The global yield gap between averages for commodities in the rest of the world and Nigerian farmers is about 50%. The culprit? Nigerian farmers don’t have access to tractors.
But before Oliver launched Hello Tractor, he took an expensive wrong turn. He first went in as a tractor manufacturer. “We worked with a manufacturer in China, and we thought we could bring low-cost, low-horsepower equipment into the continent with the connectivity in the marketplace attached to it,” he said.
“It was a huge mistake,” Oliver said—but he doesn’t regret making that mistake. “It put things on our radar that we wouldn’t even consider when we initially started. I’m very thankful that we pivoted away from that business, but we learned a lot in the process.”
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