Deere taps tractor-hailing technology in bid to break ground in Africa

A mobile phone app can show movements of a John Deere tractor, using Hello Tractor technology to connect farmers with vehicle owners. (Reuters)
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Updated 26 February 2020

Deere taps tractor-hailing technology in bid to break ground in Africa

  • Uber-style technology could help overcome agricultural finance barrier

NANYUKI, Kenya: It’s ride-hailing, farm style. Deere & Co. is teaming up with the “Uber of tractors” in Africa and betting on a future where farmers summon machines with the touch of a button.

The world’s leading farm equipment maker is outfitting its tractors with startup Hello Tractor’s technology, which allows farmers to hail the machines via an app, monitors the vehicles’ movements and transmits usage information such as fuel levels.

The aim is to help the US company boost sales of it famous green and yellow John Deere tractors, a tough task in a continent with the world’s highest poverty rate and the least mechanized agricultural sector.

Deere is currently testing the technology — a small black box fitted beneath dashboards — on around 400 tractors in Ghana and Kenya. It told Reuters it plans to roll out the devices across Africa in the second half of this year, offering it to all contractors who buy its equipment on the continent.

Jacques Taylor, who heads John Deere’s sub-Saharan Africa business, said that the continent badly needs more machinery to develop its farming industry but most farmers don’t have the scale to justify a large investment.

“We would like to see that every farmer has access to mechanization,” he told Reuters. “The gap that we’ve identified is, how do we connect small farmers with tractor owners?“

Deere declined to comment on the investment costs for the rollout. The risks are clear; there is no certainty of any measure of success in Africa, which accounts for a tiny fraction of its global sales at present.

Held back by low incomes, tiny landholdings as well as a lack of bank financing, tractor numbers have long been stagnant on the continent, even as much of the developing world has experienced a boom in mechanization.

Deere thinks it can help on the financing front: It told Reuters it could pull data from the Hello Tractor platform that showed in precise detail how farmers were using its equipment. That information, it said, could be used by the farmers — who typically lack credit histories — to help secure bank loans.

This would mean they could buy more tractors.

In central Kenya, a Deere tractor zig-zagged across a sun-drenched field, raking up dry grass and dropping bales of hay. The black box monitored its every move.

The tractor belongs to Agrimech Africa, a Nairobi-based agricultural services firm that has taken up the offer to have the devices installed on its Deere machinery. “They do the technology. We do the management,” said Pascal Kaumbutho, who heads the company.

Agrimech, which is paid by farmers to work their land, hopes the new tech will help optimize its Deere tractors and connect them to new customers, allowing it to expand.

Kaumbutho, whose company manages a dozen tractors, envisions a future in which Agrimech runs a 1,000-strong fleet. “Right now, we’re reaching about 1,500 farmers,” he said. “Within the next two or three years, I’d like to reach 20,000.”

Such opportunities exist in markets across Africa, said Hello Tractor founder Jehiel Oliver, but companies like Deere have lacked the tools to develop them.

“Nigeria alone needs 750,000 (more) tractors to be on the global average,” he said. “Our technology is a market-maker for tractor manufacturers who want to sell into those markets.”

Deere’s annual revenue of about $40 billion is dominated by the Americas and Europe. It doesn’t break out numbers for Africa, but combined revenue from Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the Middle East was $3.9 billion last year.

Outside South Africa, the continent’s most-developed economy, around 80 percent of African cropland is still cultivated by hand. Yields are half the global average. With its population set to double by 2050, increasing productivity is a necessity.

One of the big barriers to mechanization is finance; though agriculture accounts for around a quarter of Africa’s economic output and some 70 percent of jobs, banks often view farmers as high-risk because of the lack of credit histories.

“It’s one thing to go to a bank and say ‘You know. Hey, I work very hard.’ It’s another thing to be able to show it,” Kaumbutho said.

Deere said the data from the Hello Tractor platform shows how often equipment is in use, how much land it’s working, and whether it’s tilling, planting or harvesting. That information can be used to create financial statements, it added.

Tshepo Maeko, vice president and head of agrisales at South African-based lender Absa, sees potential to unlock more lending in this kind of technology which gives banks a fuller picture.

“We will be able to see how big the risk is or how big the opportunity is,” he said.

Deere is working with Hello Tractor and the banks to format the data to create easily digestible automated reports. No loan decisions have yet been made based on the information.

But Antois van der Westhuizen, John Deere Financial’s managing director for sub-Saharan Africa, said that should be possible by the time the scheme is rolled out across Africa.

“The banking systems are trying to adapt,” he said. “It’s a journey for us to really get them to understand it.”


G20 ministers agree to keep markets open, tackle pandemic supply disruptions

Updated 55 min 36 sec ago

G20 ministers agree to keep markets open, tackle pandemic supply disruptions

  • G20 leaders pledged last week to inject over $5 trillion into the global economy to limit job and income losses from the coronavirus outbreak
  • The coronavirus has infected nearly 738,500 people worldwide and killed some 35,000

RIYADH/WASHINGTON: Trade ministers from the Group of 20 major economies agreed on Monday to keep their markets open and ensure the continued flow of vital medical supplies, equipment and other essential goods as the world battles the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
G20 leaders pledged last week to inject over $5 trillion into the global economy to limit job and income losses from the coronavirus outbreak, while working to ease supply disruptions caused by border closures by national governments anxious to limit transmission of the virus.
In a joint statement issued after a videoconference, the trade ministers pledged to take “immediate necessary measures” to facilitate trade, incentivize additional production of equipment and drugs, and minimize supply chain disruptions.
They agreed that all emergency measures should be “targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary,” while sticking to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules and not creating “unnecessary barriers” to trade.
They also vowed to work to prevent profiteering and unjustified price increases, and keep supplies flowing on an affordable and equitable basis.
“As we fight the pandemic both individually and collectively and seek to mitigate its impacts on international trade and investment, we will continue to work together to deliver a free, fair, non-discriminatory, transparent, predictable and stable trade and investment environment, and to keep our markets open,” the ministers said.
They agreed to notify the WTO about any trade-related measures taken to keep global supply chains running and said they would convene again as necessary.
The ministers, however, stopped short of explicitly calling for an end to export bans that many countries, including G20 members France, Germany and India, have enacted on drugs and medical supplies. A key adviser to US President Donald Trump is working on new rules to expand “Buy America” mandates to the medical equipment and pharmaceutical sectors, something that dozens of business groups said could worsen shortages.
The joint statement included the phrase “consistent with national requirements” already used by G20 leaders, which experts say could provide a loophole for protectionist barriers.
Lack of protective medical gear is putting doctors and nurses at risk. Many countries rely on China, the source of the outbreak, for drug ingredients and are struggling to avoid shortages after lockdown measures prompted by the epidemic held up supplies and delayed shipments.
Supply chains are backing up as air freight capacity plunges and companies struggle to find truck drivers and shipping crews. Europe and the United States are short of tens of thousands of freight containers. Shippers struggle with crew shortages and quarantines at ports. Agriculture is also being disrupted.
The ministerial video conference was attended by representatives from the WTO, World Health Organization and Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
A senior World Bank official urged G20 members to agree to refrain from imposing new export restrictions on critical medical supplies, food or other key products, and to eliminate or reduce tariffs on imports of key products.
US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told the ministers during the meeting that the pandemic had revealed vulnerabilities in the US economy caused by over-dependence on cheap medical supplies from other countries. He did not reference the “Buy America” rule specifically, but said Washington was encouraging diversification and wanted to promote more domestic manufacturing to produce more suppliers for the United States and others.
G20 finance ministers and central bankers will also meet virtually, on Tuesday, for the second time in just over a week to continue coordinating their response, the Saudi G20 secretariat said, as worries grow about the debt crisis looming over poorer countries.
Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshi Kajiyama told counterparts that both the public and private sectors should try to avoid shutting supply networks to enable an early resumption of economic activities.
The coronavirus has infected nearly 738,500 people worldwide and killed some 35,000, and has plunged the world into a global recession, according to International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva.