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How the Uber of tractors is revolutionising farming

May 15, 2023
tags:#Africa, #agriculture, #technology, #food security, #internet access
located:Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana, Togo, Zimbabwe
by:Bob Koigi
Africa-based startups are coming up with innovative models that encourage the sharing of farm equipment. This could have a massive impact on food security across the continent.

The rapidly growing world population, which is predicted to rise from 8 billion to nearly 10 billion by 2050, puts increased pressure on our food systems, with billions more mouths to feed in a relatively short span of time. According to current estimates, food production will need to grow by up to 60 percent from current production rates over the next couple of decades.

Mechanisation of agriculture has been touted as a panacea to low productivity. But across the world, many smallholder farmers, who constitute the bulk of food producers, struggle to adopt modern farming techniques, which takes a toll on both yields and household incomes. 

There are numerous reasons for this, one being that the cost of tilling equipment is prohibitive and therefore out of reach for a bulk of smallholder farmers. A tractor, for instance, costs an average of USD 30,000. 

Upscaling mechanisation in Africa

Sub Saharan Africa has some of the world's lowest farming mechanisation rates, with only 13 tractors per hectare of arable land, in comparison to the global average of 200. Catering to the monetary needs of smallholder farmer is near impossible, with financiers viewing farming as a risky business. 

"Manufacturers of farm and processing equipment to a large extent do not design this machinery while factoring in small holder farmers," Simon Andys, CEO of Premier Seed, an agriculture company based in Kenya, told FairPlanet. "In the end, equipment that is meant for big agriculture enterprises do not work for small scale producers, which ends up locking this crucial group. In essence, these manufacturers should have small-scale producers and the environment in mind. This will also be key in making farming sustainable and winning more youth into farming."

Alive to the struggle around mechanisation of farming on the continent, a group of vanguard youths are utilising Africa's digital renaissance to come up with innovative agricultural solutions guided by a shared economy model. 

Tapping ag-tech solutions

One such initiative connects farmers with tractor owners who rent them out on an ad hoc basis. The project is modeled after car sharing apps like Uber that offer transportation options to those who do not own cars or need them for short-term use.

The tractor-for-hire initiative has been dubbed Uber for the Farm, and the companies offering it - from Nigeria to Kenya and Ghana - have hailed the concept as the first crucial step in addressing agricultural productivity and farmers' income challenges in the continent. 

"As digital platforms for agriculture and other agritech solutions continue to evolve, the experiences of these digitally enabled mechanization service pioneers can help advance innovation, practice and scalability to make farm mechanisation rental a viable proposition for all stakeholders," reads a section of a report by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and the Mastercard Foundation dubbed Removing Roadblocks: Lessons learned in leveraging digital technology to increase smallholder farm mechanization.

Oe fo the first Uber for the Farm companies to launch is Hello Tractor. Established in Nigeria in 2014, the startup has expanded its footprint into 13 countries in Africa and three in Asia. It has worked with over 3,000 truck owners so far and reached out to more than half a million farmers.

The company’s platform links tractor owners with farmers via a digital app, while agents are recruited from within the community to sign up farmers and offer any assistance they might need. At the same time, tractor owners purchase Hello Tractor’s GPS device, which they attach to their tractors in order to accept booking requests and monitor movement.

When a farmer makes a booking they are automatically connected to the nearest tractor, which reportedly allows them to plant 40 times faster at one third of the cost. 

The platform promotes transparency by letting tractor owners monitor the location of their tractor, the activities it performs, fuel consumed and any required maintenance.

Farmers, on the other hand, are given a chance to rate the tractor operators, as is the case with taxi hailing apps. The app then aggregates the ratings and makes them visible to browsing farmers so they could choose which tractor owner they wish to reach out to. 

Augustine Mwongela, a Kenyan smallholder farmer, has been using Hello Tractor’s platform to till his 0.5 hectare land for the last two years. Having traditionally relied on physical labour from casual workers and his family, he says the process was laborious and took a lot of time. 

"The tractor leasing model has allowed me to speed up tilling and planting, cutting cost and also expanding my area under cultivation from 0.1 hectares to 0.5 hectares," he told FairPlanet. "With that expansion I have increased the variety of crops I grow, from maize and beans to an array of horticultural ones, such as kale, onions, tomatoes and capsicum, [which] I sell in local markets."

TROTRO Tractor Limited, another tractor leasing company that started operations in Ghana in 2016, connects farmers and tractor owners through text messaging and dial-up systems. Unlike Hello Tractor, which works through agents, TROTRO interacts with farmers directly. It also partners with farm equipment sellers in order to expand the portfolio of machinery it offers and teamed up with financial institutions in order to assist farmers interested in purchasing their own tractors.

Hello Tractor has  over time expanded to Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Togo, and registered more than 27,000 farmers in its service thus far. 

Facing the challenges

But even as such initiatives continue to open up more arable land for a growing number of farmers, the concept is not without flaws.

In some instances, tractors are dispatched only if there is demand for services. Companies and tractor owners thus  first have to ensure that the area is large enough and and there are enough farmers requesting the service to justify dispatching tractors there. Smallholder farmers looking looking to lease a tractor therefore have no guarantee that they will be able to do so.

When farmers pay for services in advance and are unable to lease a tractor, refunds are made - but the land remains untilled. 

Additionally, poor network coverage and digital literacy rates stand in the way of full implementation of the initiative. Most smallholder farmers are not well-versed in technology, do not own a smartphone, which makes it difficult to reach a bulk of them. They also live and work in rural areas where connectivity is not fully available. 

Harmonising the connection between tractor owners and farmers is noted as a top priority in the AGRA report: "Pooling resources to share equipment is not a simple fix, either, because successful mechanization requires a well-functioning ecosystem of equipment dealers, asset and input financing, maintenance, spare parts, training and market access - such as off-takers ready to buy the farmers’ produce on time at a fair price.

"In the absence of such ecosystem coordination, there are few available, good quality, affordable mechanization options."

Andys of Premier Seed argues that bringing together all players, from government and private stakeholders in the agriculture sector to development partners, is a key step in strengthening partnership around the mechanisation, while coming up with policies and legislation that fast-track modern farming.

"With a burgeoning population, changes in weather and dwindling soil fertility, mechanisation is the way to go if we are to boost food and nutrition security, create jobs, introduce more young people into farming and increase our national earnings," Andys said. "The matter should be given the priority it deserves."

Image by Jed Owen.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Nigeria Kenya Ghana Togo Zimbabwe
Embed from Getty Images
Sub Saharan Africa has some of the world's lowest farming mechanisation rates, with only 13 tractors per hectare of arable land, in comparison to the global average of 200.
Embed from Getty Images
The company’s platform connects tractor owners with farmers through an app.
Embed from Getty Images
“The tractor leasing model has allowed me to speed up tilling and planting, cutting cost and also expanding my area under cultivation from 0.1 hectares to 0.5 hectares.”
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