Agriculture & processing

Driving change: Hello Tractor and ABERA

May 20th, 2024

Bephine always arrives on time and in uniform. Several colorful patches are sewn onto her bright orange Hello Tractor jumpsuit, one for every technical course she has completed: Tractor Maintenance, Tractor Operation, Conservation Agriculture, Customer Care, and E-Extension. At each farm, Bephine arrives prepared for the job, ready with the tractor and implement required. Still, sometimes she gets questions and pushback from farmers. But she enjoys her job and sees a future in this line of work.

Hello Tractor is a technology company that facilitates mechanization and post-harvest services for small-scale producers across 17 countries in Africa, including Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, and Kenya, where Bephine works. Their digital platform and network of more than 2,000 booking agents have connected over 5,000 tractors with 1.2 million farmers, using the Internet of Things (IoT)-enabled technology to cluster demand and optimize the deployment of services.

Farmers can book mechanization services – such as soil ripping, plowing, or rotavating before planting, harvesting, and transport – through their local booking agent or the Hello Tractor mobile app. They get an appointment with a certified tractor operator in their area, usually within a few days, and make payment when the work is done, either directly through the tractor operator, via their booking agent, or through mobile money. Hello Tractor confirms the day and time of the appointment, registration number of the tractor, and name of the tractor operator.

Challenging gender norms in a male-dominated sector 

Despite the advance information about their appointment details, farmers are sometimes surprised and apprehensive when Bephine arrives. They ask whether she can really manage the tractor and complete the task. Sometimes women farmers have even been unwelcoming and asked for a male tractor operator instead.

Bephine, a 24-year-old woman from Kisumu in western Kenya, studied agriculture and had been doing manual labor on farms in her area. She had always wanted to do more and was thrilled to be accepted into the Hello Tractor operator training program, which is affiliated with global equipment manufacturers like John Deere, Case New Holland (CNH), and AGCO Massey Ferguson. Bephine trained for two months to qualify as a tractor operator and is now the only female tractor operator in her community.

While some people find it strange that she’s chosen to work in what is typically considered a man’s job, Bephine feels right at home at her new job. She is confronting the gendered social norms around agriculture which typically steer manual, labor-intensive tasks to women and assign mechanical tasks involving machinery, transportation, and markets to men.

Nevertheless, Bephine perseveres. She answers all the skeptical questions and then just does the work, exceeding any low expectations. Sometimes after the fact, farmers tell her she’s more efficient and productive than men they’ve worked with. She appreciates that and likes the work, as well as the paycheck, and could see a career with Hello Tractor. So Bephine continues pushing against the norm, but not everyone does. Many of the women she trained with have stopped working as tractor operators.

This is a lost opportunity for Hello Tractor, too: their internal data shows that women agents and tractor owners tend to book more jobs, have wider networks, generate more revenue, and have higher repayment rates than male tractor owners. They enroll and train many women as tractor operators, but ultimately employ relatively few, due in part to the social norms facing women, especially young women, in a male-dominated job.

Hello Tractor tractor operators at work, Eveline Awendo (left) and Florence Achieng (right)

Hello Tractor tractor operators at work, Eveline Awendo (left) and Florence Achieng (right)

But gendered social norms aren’t the only bump in the road 

Hello Tractor is also working to shift norms around agricultural practices and move toward conservation agriculture. The data on conservation agriculture is clear: these practices conserve soil and water, buffer against drought, reduce erosion, and decrease field preparation costs, all while stabilizing short-term yields and often increasing them in the long term, even in the face of climate stresses and shocks.

Hello Tractor data also shows better agricultural production among small-scale producers who use climate-smart mechanization practices such as ‘minimum-till’ soil conservation practices that ‘rip’ a line in the soil instead of opening it through plowing. Soil ripping preserves soil moisture, structure, and nutrients and can ultimately increase production, but leaves a messier-looking appearance than traditional land preparation for planting. But even with data, farmers are slow to adopt these new practices and look to trusted peers for guidance and examples.

So, even before Bephine arrives, farmers may feel like they’re taking a risk on an unfamiliar approach to land preparation. And then a young woman arrives to implement this new practice? It is risk upon risk, challenging social and agricultural norms at once. And for some farmers, it’s too much.

To help push against these norms, Hello Tractor’s senior tractor operators conduct trainings among the farmers they work with to demonstrate the value of their services, particularly any less-familiar conservation agriculture practices. They intentionally involve junior tractor operators like Bephine in the training delivery to validate their experience and help them build their network of trusted relationships, working to shift both agricultural and gendered social norms over time.

A Hello Tractor agent operates a tractor

A Hello Tractor tractor operator shares insight and guidance from his experience

Hello Tractor is also opening mechanization hubs with demonstration plots and experts on-site around Kenya. These gathering points allow farmers to stop by with questions about land preparation or asset financing and see the equipment in action – before it reaches their plot. Hello Tractor hubs will also offer small-scale growers additional valued services such as AI-powered digital advisory, post-harvest storage, access to markets, and linkages to other financial and agricultural service providers, increasing their value to farmers.

Two individuals talk

The first of many Hello Tractor technology hubs in the Kisumu region in Kenya

Accelerating the journey through ABERA

FSD NetworkFSD KenyaIDH, and CGAP are collaborating with Hello Tractor as part of ABERA, Accelerating Business to Empower Rural Women in Agriculture, boosting business innovation while driving gender and climate goals. Together, we’re considering different approaches to tackle gender and climate challenges and further boost Hello Tractor’s business and financial service linkages.

What partners could offer Hello Tractor farmers, tractor operators, and booking agents a wider range of financial services? How might Hello Tractor leverage its extensive data and links with financial service providers to offer carbon credits for climate-smart conservation agriculture practices? And how can tweaks to its approach and services start shifting social norms around young women’s employment as book agents and tractor operators?

This article was first published by CGAP, and was co-authored with Jamie Anderson, Folu Okunade, and Ann Kitonga. 

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