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Uber For Tractors: Chicago Booth MBA Starts On-Demand AgTech Service For Africa’s Farmers

Van Jones’ Hello Tractor won Chicago Booth’s Social New Venture Challenge in 2014

Mon Oct 24 2016

Van Jones joined the Chicago Booth MBA to make an impact on a global scale. Two years later, he co-founded Hello Tractor.

Inspired by sharing economy pioneers like Uber and Zipcar, Hello Tractor is an agricultural technology – agtech – startup set to revolutionize farming in Sub-Saharan Africa. Through Hello Tractor, smallholder farmers in Nigeria can now get access to critical equipment on demand.

Smart tractors are ordered by text, delivered in under two weeks, and paid for via mobile money. They’re fitted with GPS - to gather data on location, uptake and market trends - and on-board diagnostics systems which can also be attached to existing agricultural equipment.

On the B2B side, Van’s looking to sell Hello Tractor’s pioneering technology to Nigeria's largest farming cooperatives. His aim: to mechanize smallholder farming, increase agricultural productivity and improve food and income security in Africa.

It all started at Chicago Booth. In 2014, Hello Tractor secured $30,000 in seed funding after winning Booth’s Social New Venture Challenge, organized by the Social Enterprise Initiative.

Van now works full-time in the US for leading chemicals company DuPont while his Hello Tractor co-founder, Jehiel Oliver, is out on the ground in Nigeria. But he’s still heavily involved. The plan is to conquer Africa, before going global.

How did the idea to start up Hello Tractor come about?

We wanted to focus on the mechanization space and getting key tools to different parts of Africa. We looked at agriculture. Across Africa, there’s been a lot of focus on fertilizers and seed treatment, but getting the product into the ground is a very arduous task for smallholder farmers.

Urbanization has resulted in lots of young, capable people moving away from farms. Some farms are very large. And non-mechanized labor can take up to 40 days of land prep compared to what a tractor can do in a single day.

During the MBA, I built a team of b-school students to identify how we could turn the idea into a real business. We entered the Social New Venture Challenge at Booth. We ended up winning and from there the business was launched.

What do you hope to achieve?

Over the next five to ten years, we see the entire continent of Africa having our products. We've also had conversations with people who want to bring our model to South-East Asia and Latin America.

With Hello Tractor, we created a part business-to-business model which allows for the diaspora community to buy technology that they can run remotely. The idea is to enable more sophisticated participation in this market than there has been. The growth we see will move beyond the smart tractor and more towards the retrofit space.

How much do you credit Chicago Booth for where you are now?

Through the gauntlet of the MBA, you get tested and you come out stronger. Having your mindset shaped by an institution like Chicago Booth is key.

I took Hello Tractor through a class that led to the Social New Venture Challenge and a class called ‘Building A New Venture’; basically a startup simulation course. Both were incredibly helpful in shaping my thinking in terms of building relationships and approaching the operational and financial challenges that we’ve had to deal with.

Outside academics, we have a group of individuals at Booth that we can always talk to. The Social Enterprise Initiative has been extremely helpful.

Why did you decide to pursue an MBA at Chicago Booth?

I didn’t start the MBA because I wanted to be the richest person in the world. To me, education is important in understanding yourself and your motivations. And business itself can be a force for good.

The Chicago Booth MBA is flexible and allowed me to build my own path in a way that other school’s didn’t. The school is grounded in some strong fundamental principles in terms of economics and understanding the world around you in a very critical way. Booth was where I needed to be.

What should applicants think about when deciding to do an MBA?

There’s so many great schools in the world. At the end of the day, it comes down to whether the school’s approach to education aligns to your personal beliefs and whether the people you’re interacting with are beneficial to your life.

At Booth, I met people from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. They’re not just ex-classmates; they’re friends. We went through a lot at business school and we built strong relationships.

How have you found juggling your own business and a full-time job?

It’s definitely a challenge, but it’s a worthwhile challenge.

I see myself having a career that combines large corporate environments with smaller, more entrepreneurial environments. There’s a mission-driven aspect to Hello Tractor and doing the work that’s going to help support that business is important.


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