Episode 005: Building Nigeria's Uber for Tractors with Van Jones

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EPISODE 005 OF YOUNG AFRICAN ENTREPRENEUR FEATURES VAN JONES, CO-FOUNDER AND HEAD OF STRATEGY OF HELLO TRACTOR

You can connect with Van @HelloTractor on Twitter. 

I first learned about Van and Hello Tractor after chatting with my best friend who works at a multinational trading house. She told me there’s this innovative company working in Nigeria that is like the Uber for tractors. Smallholder farmers can request tractor services using a USSD code on a feature phone. The tractor owner comes over, performs the service. Boom. The farmer saves time and money and improves yields through mechanized plowing. The tractor owner is capitalizing his asset. Brilliant idea, right? 

Van has a really cool story. In 2008, he graduated from college in Ohio and left for China to pursue his career staying for 4 years. In 2012, he returned to the US to complete an MBA at the University of Chicago. There, he connected with future cofounder Jehiel Oliver who had the idea of creating a tractor rental service app for smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. They developed the business plan, won a prestigious competition for seed funding, and headed off to Nigeria to test their idea. 

Only to find out it didn’t quite work the way they had thought in their business plan.

Hello Tractor is a really fascinating business, making a real difference with smallholder farmers in Nigeria. It was really great chatting with Van. We talked about his early career in China, how Hello Tractor accidentally fell into being a conventional tractor company and how they successfully pivoted to being a pure tech company, and why research and reciprocity are fundamental to networking.  

Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Van Jones. 

SHOW NOTES

  • How Van Jones got from Ohio in the US to selling tractors in Nigeria. [2:51] 
  • Van worked in China from 2008-2018 as a consultant to FMCG companies. [5:36] 
  • His biggest takeaway from working in China that he could later apply to Sub-Saharan Africa. [6:42] 
  • Why Van was keen to start a business specifically in West Africa. [8:31]How his knowledge of Chinese came in handy during a meeting in Kebbi State, Nigeria. [10:32] 
  • The key to his successful partnership with Hello Tractor co-founders Jehiel Oliver and Martha Haile. [11:32] 
  • How Hello Tractor pivoted from being a tractor company to a tech company. [14:02] 
  • Why he ended up wasting a year trying to get local banks to create loan packages for local agripreneurs. [16:40] 
  • The average age of a farmer in Sub-Saharan Africa is 60 years old, which is why Hello Tractor focuses on creating business opportunities in agriculture to young people. [19:42]
  • In 2015, Hello Tractor started country operations in Nigeria. Van was less involved as he was working in mergers & acquisitions (M&A) strategy in the US. He moved to Nigeria in 2017 when they changed the company model. [22:50]
  • The effects of the economic recession in Nigeria on Hello Tractor’s business. [23:56] 
  • The collapse of the Naira forced Hello Tractor to refocus on its core activity. [25:46] 
  • Hello Tractor collects data on the machine and the farmer, which they can use to provide insights on tractor financing and spare parts inventory. [29:10] 
  • Access to tractors can improve crop yields 3-4x for Nigerian farmers who use labor-intensive farming methods. [31:45] 
  • What surprised him the most working with smallholder farmers in Nigeria. [36:12]
  • Van reveals the biggest failure for Hello Tractor – and what he learned from it. [39:14] 
  • He explains how education helped him obtain self-empowerment.  [47:21] 
  • The best advice that Van has ever received as an entrepreneur. [50:12] 
  • How he deals with uncomfortable situations, uncertainty and rejection. [52:59]
  • Why establishing relationships with connectors is critical in networking in Africa. [55:22] 
  • How aspiring entrepreneurs can establish a great network in their industry. [57:26]
  • Where would Van go in Africa to improve his business. He has an eye on Zimbabwe. [59:57]
  • Van’s actionable advice for aspiring African entrepreneurs. [1:02:32]

RESOURCES MENTIONED