For years he had two feet planted firmly on the ground as a corporate investment banker. Now, with a little start-up money, Jehiel Oliver runs a small Anacostia-based company, with a plan to solve a big agriculture problem half a world away.
Oliver’s novel idea, a “Smart Tractor” that can be delivered with the tap of a cellphone, has the attention of far-reaching international development organizations. He has African governments looking to invest in his farming product. Even President Obama gave pause when Oliver pitched his sprouting business, called Hello Tractor, at a global summit.
By 27, Oliver was burning out on corporate banking, more intrigued with what he was reading about the microfinance revolution to support cash-poor entrepreneurs. He had dug his way out of poverty, having grown up on food stamps.
“While working in investment banking I began vacationing in developing countries and saw microfinance models in play,” Oliver said. “I wanted to serve the base of the pyramid — to support people who simply needed tools to enable them to be self-sufficient.”
He quit his job and went to Afghanistan to help the U.S. government establish a formal financial system. He gravitated toward agriculture when he worked on other development projects tied to food security, focusing on helping farmers in the Philippines mechanize their operations.
Then he set his sights on Nigeria, envisioning a potential breadbasket. He devised a business in which farmers send a text to Hello Tractor’s U.S.-based dispatchers, who locate the nearest GPS-embedded Smart Tractor and ping the service provider. The tractors typically arrive within three days.
“Nigeria has one of the largest inventories of uncultivated, rain-fed farmland on Earth,” he said. “But they are losing crops in volumes because of labor shortages and lack of mechanization.”
His proprietary $4,000 Smart Tractor comes equipped with attachments that knock off in one day what Nigerian farmers do manually in 40 days. And the retrofitted two-wheel vehicle is easy to maneuver on their fairly small fields.
The concept seems to make sense. But how does a former corporate investment banker from D.C. position himself as a Nigerian agriculture guru?
“There is no magic here,” he said. “Just a lot of hard work and reaching out to people in my network; experts familiar with this stuff.”
He collected researchers’ data on Nigerian farmers’ earnings and agriculture purchases to determine business and pricing models. He talked to experts in small-holder farm mechanization for guidance on tractor design.
And he borrowed from the technical expertise of developers of software-driven fleet vehicle-management systems, as his plan was to offer applications such as GPS.
Then he went looking for investors.
“I have a friend at [International Fund for Agricultural Development] headquarters in Rome,” he said. “He introduced me to Nigeria’s IFAD country manager. She invited me to present to the six states IFAD was investing in. The leadership bought into our product, which gave us the inroad.”
Not only do the tractors benefit farmers, cutting their labor costs by two-thirds, but the service providers get a boost as well. For a daily $75 fee, Oliver said tractor owners could earn five times the average wage.
An early break came when the Central Bank of Nigeria, similar to the U.S. Federal Reserve, guaranteed 75 percent of the Smart Tractor loan to farmers.
“Now, we tell commercial banks and development financial institutions we have this credit guarantee. It’s safe for them” to finance tractor rentals, Oliver said. He is negotiating several partnerships, targeting a 10 percent interest loan, which he said is about one-third the cost of alternatives for this borrower segment.
Since then the 33-year-old entrepreneur has secured a grant from the USAID to support his operating expenses. And he is waiting to hear whether the agency will award another grant for Smart Tractor buyers.
Oliver spends most of his time in Nigeria while his team of four, including partner Van Jones, a fellow graduate of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, oversees operations from the States.
“I need to be in Nigeria to learn how people live to know what business models make sense,” Oliver said. “For instance, some Nigerians move to urban areas to earn a living. But they have an obligation to invest in their village homes. They have built homes on family compounds, which often sit vacant.”
So he’s talking to enterprising city dwellers, explaining that they can buy and lease Smart Tractors and leverage the vehicle’s embedded technology to run a business remotely. And they’re supporting farmers.
“We developed mobile apps to track revenue share, tractor usage and to schedule maintenance,” he said. “I learned things like this — about how people live — by talking to my taxi driver, a waiter and farmers.”
Last July, he stood on a stage in Kenya beside Obama and Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at a global summit, part of Obama’s foreign-policy initiatives. He pitched his product to business leaders from around the world.
Oliver has worked out a deal with the Niger government, which received IFAD funds to finance 70 percent of the Smart Tractor loan. Niger also bought tractors to do demonstrations for farmers in five cities hit hard by post-harvest losses.
“We were able to demonstrate how Smart Tractor works in the fields to improve cassava and rice cultivation methods and reduce hard labor. The farmer organizations who came are asking to acquire them,” said Mathew Ahmed, who coordinates Niger’s agriculture program.
Oliver said he started selling in the first quarter of 2015 and has just over $6 million in completed sales, signed contracts and early-stage negotiations. This includes a pending order from Notore Chemical, one of Nigeria’s largest fertilizer manufacturers. The tractor’s data-tracking capabilities (farm location and size and planting schedules) will help address distribution and point-of-sale challenges.
Oliver is also negotiating with John Deere. The global company, based in Illinois, will probably host pilot projects in Kenya or Nigeria, said Innocent Sillingi, who oversees Small Holder Farmer Projects for John Deere, Africa.
CARE International, which facilitates long-term development projects, bought two Smart Tractors for a demonstration in Ghana. It is focusing on female farmers, who dominate agriculture in developing countries, often living on the equivalent of $2 a day or less.
“We are waiting to see if the tractors are adaptive to conditions there, and if they lighten women farmers’ labor burden,” said Laté Lawson-Lartego, the organization’s Atlanta-based director for agriculture and market systems.
CARE may buy them and rent them to own.
“If they prove effective, we will need them,” Lawson-Lartego said. “No one else offers a model like this.”
The Points of Light Civic Accelerator chose Oliver as one of 15 applicants (from a field of more than 200) to attend a entrepreneurship boot camp. The program, which focused on social problems, took him to three U.S. cities where he met corporate leaders and tested his business prototype. His presentation garnered a $50,000 award.
“What impressed us is that Hello Tractor is working to solve complex problems on the ground in Africa through a co-sharing platform [for sharing or renting products], which is enabled by technology,” said Ayesha Khanna, the incubator’s president. “The collaborative consumption/sharing economy represents an important trend in civic engagement and is a unique approach to economic development in the region.”
Oliver figures he has an edge over his bigger, older competitors.
“Small companies can often move faster and tend to be less risk-averse,” he said. “They’re willing to do crazy things, like move to Nigeria.
“You turn on the news and it’s all about Ebola and Boko Haram, and it scares some businesses away. Meanwhile, you have an emerging middle class,” he said. “During the global recession, there were countries in Africa whose gross profit dollars grew at 6 percent to double-digit rates. You can’t ignore Africa.”
But, he said, “At the end of the day, we are still a U.S. company. It’s just that our key markets are overseas.”