Described as the “Uber for farms”, the Hello Tractor app is making a real impact in the agricultural sector, helping small scale African farmers in particular. This is what motivates Folu Okunade to get up and go to work each day.
In a business world where conversations about artificial intelligence, face recognition software and blockchain technology dominate, it can be hard to imagine a place where farmers stand by the side of the road waiting to hail a random tractor to help plough their fields. Or places where fields can’t be sowed, and crops cannot be harvested due to a lack of basic farming tools.
Yet, this is the reality for millions of people across Africa — and what motivates Folu Okunade to do the work he does. As COO at Hello Tractor, a novel mobile platform that connects farmers to tractors as well as agricultural equipment, expertise and financial services, Okunade is working to connect under resourced farmers in emerging economies to the information age.
“We often get compared to the Uber of tractors in Africa,” says Okunade. “But I don’t think that really captures the full scope of what Hello Tractor is. What we have done is to better organise the demand that is already in the market, unlocking tons of unmet demand for tractor services through a sharing platform.”
Hello Tractor disrupts a complex agricultural system via technology — making it easier for tractor owners to hire out their services, and for farmers to connect and hire tractors for their needs. This means that farmers can do their work up to 40 times faster. This is vital on a continent facing huge developmental challenges that are compounded by poverty and unemployment. It is estimated that by 2030, Africa will have half a billion more mouths to feed, yet 25% of the continent is currently undernourished.
“Hello Tractor makes farming a viable profession,” says Okunade. “It creates entrepreneurial opportunities for tractor owners, and it strengthens the agricultural sector, which is the biggest employer of young people on the continent.”
Since being founded in Nigeria in 2014, Hello Tractor has grown into a thriving company with a presence in 15 countries in Africa and Asia, helping 250 000 farmers and enjoying support from private manufacturers, dealers, as well as global humanitarian organisations. It has expanded into providing agricultural services and tools, providing a network for financial institutions, farmers, agricultural organisations and others to improve the agricultural sector on the continent. And when COVID-19 hit, Hello Tractor was ready with a response. “We have seen an increase in prices of inputs such as seeds and fertilisers as well as movement restrictions keeping labourers from reaching farmers. More than ever, farmers need help and access to finance. Our challenge has been to meet farmers where they are and do what we can.”
In some ways, Okunade has come full circle. Born in Nigeria but raised and educated in the United States, he was always interested in development work and emerging market economies. Leaving a promising career in Washington D.C. at Accenture, he came to South Africa in 2007 to experience the young democracy for himself. He went on to study an MBA at the UCT Graduate School of Business in 2010 and then became a senior project manager at the African Union’s NEPAD (New Partnership for Africa’s Development). This paved the way for his eventual move to Hello Tractor as Chief Operating Officer and Chief Strategy Officer.
While he misses Chipotle and Jeni’s ice cream in Chicago (one of his many homes), Okunade currently works from an office in Nairobi. He knows he is making a difference when he sees the reports coming in and he talks to agents and farmers on the ground. “We have a saying at Hello Tractor: ‘Come for the tool and stay for the farmer network’.” This means more than building just an app or a tool, but empowering young people and women and strengthening communities.
He adds, “I guess I am a sucker for challenges, for situations where I feel I can use my experience and knowledge to help tackle a really sticky situation for which there is no easy answer. I am drawn to it, really I gravitate towards the types of opportunities that Hello Tractor offers.”