Right now in Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 60% of farms run solely on human labour and less than 20% of them are powered by engines. For this reason and more, Africa does not produce enough food to feed itself and this means that it has to import a lot of it. It currently imports $35 billion worth of food, a figure that

There are many solutions to this problem, but one that IBM Research and startup Hello Tractor are focusing on is the problem of demand and supply visibility for African farmers, tractor fleet providers, and financial institutions (or credit providers). At the just concluded TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa, IBM Research’s scientists and Hello Tractor announced the pilot of an agriculture digital wallet and decision-making tool that leverages on several forms of technology including AI, Blockchain, IoT and cloud.

Hello Tractor uses a gig economy approach to providing tractors to farmers who would normally not be able to afford them. The farmers sign up on the platform and are matched with tractor fleet providers from whom they rent tractors for a fee. So far, Hello Tractor has 1,200 tractors on its platform and has serviced about 250,000 farmers in the past year.

I sat down with Solomon Assefa, Vice President, Emerging Markets and Director, IBM Research – Africa, and Jehiel Oliver, CEO and founder, Hello Tractor, to discuss the partnership and its implication for farmers across the continent.

Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa (BI SSA): Tell us about this partnership. What is the idea behind it?

Solomon Assefa (SA): IBM would like to transform industries and impact lives across many industries in Africa. Oftentimes, if you really want to address these challenges, you have to do a couple of things. One is to unleash some of the latest technologies so you can effectively solve those problems. The other is that you have to work with the local ecosystem and you have to have partnerships.

The IBM research team The IBM research team

We bring the latest technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence but we don’t like working in silos. We believe in partnerships because it is through them that you can really address these big problems. That’s why we have such a deal with Hello Tractor, in the case of agriculture.

Hello Tractor already has a platform that aggregates farmers and tractor owners and addresses their service needs. But it is also a company that wants to scale, bring more intelligence and more services.

Right now, it’s possible to help the farmer have more understanding of the soil quality, to forecast yield, and to understand which seed and fertiliser to get. Because right now, you can actually utilise satellite data, then get very cheap sensors to understand the soil data, layer that data and apply artificial intelligence so you can actually have much more insight. You can utilise weather data as well and forecast when the farmer should plant, where a tractor owner should cluster their services, and how to optimise deployment of tractors.

The partnership (with Hello Tractor) will be very impactful in terms of scaling the services further out across Nigeria and across Africa.

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BI SSA: If someone asks you what you’re trying to achieve with this partnership, what would you tell them?

Jehiel Oliver (JO): Farmers in this region (Nigeria) have been undocumented for decades. The first point is to figure out how to safely and securely document who they are, what they’re doing, but also to allow that data sit securely with them and then use the insights from the data to ensure that they receive the services and the access to market that they need to succeed. That would be the first thing.

The IBM research team The IBM research team

The second this is if you look at agriculture and how it’s evolved in developed markets, every developed economy started with a functional extension system funded by the public sector. So, an extension agent who has a few hundred farmers within their network provides insights to those farmers, does the soil testing, gives them advice on the right seed and fertiliser to use, all paid for by the government.

Africa is in a unique position because that extension system, a functional extension system, doesn’t exist anywhere on the continent. But that, in our minds, presents a leapfrog opportunity for us to use more advanced approaches -- artificial intelligence -- to replace what a human being traditionally did and have advanced computing and cognitive solutions deliver more accurate and timely advice in a way that’s more cost-effective than sending an individual out to engage with 300 smallholder farmers cultivating 200 hectares of land. It just doesn’t make any sense.

So, because there are certain constraints in our region around what the government can do, very real budgetary constraints, bringing in technology to supplement that lack of access to resources can help bridge that gap that exists and present an opportunity to accelerate some of that information getting out to the farmers.

SA: Two bullet points. One is, like Jehiel said, about real-time advisory services which are very important for the farmer -- how to plant, what kinds of seeds to use, what kind of fertiliser to use, and so forth. So, really, based on data analytics and combining different types of data sources and applying AI, it is possible to give that type of information on a mobile phone to a farmer.

The second one is about convening an ecosystem. The platform that’s being built brings in the farmer, the tractor owner, and the financier together on the same platform. Then the blockchain makes the information visible to each one of these parties. What that means is you, more or less, eliminate the friction that exists -- information and data are visible for everyone. The farmer can now request credit from the bank or the tractor owner can do the same and the bank has more confidence because of the analytics that we provide. The financier can understand the creditworthiness of the farmer or the tractor owner.

The AI and blockchain enabled digital waller developed by IBM is going to change how African farmers farm The AI and blockchain enabled digital waller developed by IBM is going to change how African farmers farm

By building this platform, we are bringing all of the parties together so there’s more flow of information and financing throughout the network.

BI SSA: What are the barriers you foresee to adoption and how do you plan to overcome them?

JO: I think the biggest barrier is making sure that that touchpoint at the last mile is incredibly strong, and that touchpoint for us is the agent that interacts with the farmer.

A farmer won’t get on their smartphone and book tractor service. I mean, come on, could you imagine? But what they will do is interact with that trusted advisor in their community that is using the technology to provide those services and that access. We get the right agents, which creates huge employment opportunities in the country, by the way, by identifying the person who is not only entrepreneurial but also has the respect and trust needed in the community. Because we’re tapping into relationship capital, it’s not just technology.

The AI and blockchain enabled digital waller developed by IBM is going to change how African farmers farm The AI and blockchain enabled digital waller developed by IBM is going to change how African farmers farm

There are too many folks building technology that just sits in the cloud, but it’s still a person-to-person business. And that’s something that, no matter where you are in the world, in agriculture, farmers care deeply about the relationship that they have with the people that they do business with, and Nigeria's no different.

Instead of trying to get 90 million farmers on the platform, we need really high-quality agents that will then go on to interact with those 90 million farmers. I think the identification of those people is going to be the biggest challenge, and getting them to adopt the technology n a way that the insights are transferred to the farmer is quite simply the biggest challenge.

To solve that, we are already making very focused investments on onboarding booking agents that are high-quality. That’s everything from working through partners like fertiliser companies, Notore is a good example. They’ve invested heavily in their agent network here in Nigeria, they call it the village promoters’ scheme. That’s a great opportunity to work that existing network and identify the high performers, then ask them if they would be willing to work with us on top of what they already do.

SA: I think technology is going to enable them even further. So, if you have a young graduate who wants to be somehow involved in agriculture and becomes an agent, then all of a sudden, this technology is helping them reach out to the right farmers at the right time and is able to engage with the information on the platform, it’s quite powerful.