Sowing Self-Sufficiency in Africa With Anacostia-Based ‘Hello Tractor’
Monday, September 14, 2015
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.