Youth, smart phones and tractors in Africa – a new agrarian class?

Published on 14 November 2017

Lídia Cabral

Rural Futures Cluster Lead

James Sumberg

Emeritus Fellow

Hello Tractor on mobile phone

Farming mechanisation is back on the policy and research agenda. Although some old debates – on roles of the state and on appropriate type and scale of technology – remain relevant, there are new players, new themes and new technologies, as well as fresh opportunities for mutual learning and exchange across the Global South. A recent conference on South-South Knowledge Sharing on Agricultural Mechanization in Addis Ababa, organised by IFPRI, CIMMYT and the Ethiopian Agricultural Mechanization Forum, showcased some novel experiences with mechanisation, cutting across very different landscapes and agrarian societies. Here we reflect on the connection between agricultural mechanisation and young people and sketch out a research agenda.

The case for mechanisation is often made on grounds of increased labour productivity and reduced post-harvest losses. Yet, the reduction of drudgery of farming operations, as Josef Kienzle from FAO emphasised at the conference, was American blacksmith John Deere’s leading motivation for developing his pioneering mouldboard plough in 1837. When thinking about mechanisation in developing countries, ‘ergonomics is as critical as economics’, stressed David Kahan, while adding that this is not just about reducing drudgery but crucially about attracting the youth into agriculture.

There is considerable evidence to suggest that young people in farming communities are reluctant to take on the high effort, low return farming done by their parents. But there is an emerging area that seems to be particularly appealing to the youth, with both rural and urban backgrounds. This is machinery rental or custom-hire services, a recurrent theme at the conference. Farmers do not have to own machinery, which is expensive to buy and maintain, as long as they can get timely access to mechanisation services at a reasonable price (small farmers’ bargaining power in the rental market is a crucial matter, though not the focus of this blog). Rental markets, it was argued, are particularly relevant for small farmers, who may not have the capital or land to justify individual ownership of machinery.

The new entrepreneurs

A number of new initiatives are trying to speed up the emergence of this new generation of agricultural mechanisation entrepreneurs, by introducing digital technology into the mix.

Hello Tractor is a US and Nigeria-based start-up, led by a young and energetic American entrepreneur. The company seeks to connect tractor owners with farmers in need of tractor services. Specifically, Hello Tractor sells a monitoring device and corresponding software to tractor owners who are willing to rent out their underutilised machinery. These are typically medium-scale farmers owning small to medium (65 horsepower being the most common) four-wheel tractors (large-scale farmers with larger tractors are less likely to have spare capacity or will be less willing to rent them out). The device allows owners to track the use of their tractors, control fraud and keep on top of maintenance needs. It sends tractor usage information to the cloud where data for the entire tractor networks is compiled. Hello Tractor has also trained over a hundred young (20 to 25 years old) and digital technology savvy (many are smart phone users) ‘booking agents’ in Nigeria to help identify and aggregate demand, and link up with tractor suppliers to help ensure the tractor fleet linked to the network is kept busy and productive throughout the year. These young agents get a commission by making connections. Hello Tractor currently has 514 tractors linked to the network in Nigeria and is expanding to Kenya and looking into opportunities in other countries. Trotro Tractor in Ghana is developing along similar lines. And in India, farMart, led by three young graduates, offers a similar market coordination service through a smart phone app.

In Ethiopia’s wheat-producing Arsi region, the country’s breadbasket, a new machinery rental service for land preparation and harvesting is also thriving. The undulating plains of Arsi that spread along the Great Rift Valley look like an ideal spot for mechanisation. Individual farm sizes are relatively small but the smooth and expansive fields look, from the distance at least, like a massive contiguous plot. This time of the year, the fields are covered with beautifully golden wheat and a few combine harvesters can be spotted in the horizon. Services are advertised on billboards by the road. At Itaya, the Addis conference delegates meet Abrham Endrias, a jovial and articulate MBA graduate from the capital city who owns one 125 horsepower tractor, ploughing and harrowing equipment and one combine harvester. He, himself, does not farm but rents his machinery to farmers. His young company, GreenAgro Solutions, has been operating in the region for nearly three years and uses a local network of ICT-connected friends, who act as brokers, to stimulate and aggregate demand. This allows GreenAgro to work efficiently with clusters of neighbouring farmers, as the equipment is moved from one village to the next. Mr Endrias travels about 300 km along the valley, following the season and keeping his tractor in the field for nine to ten months a year. The business has been doing well and he aspires to eventually expand the fleet to three tractors and three combine harvesters. Other young entrepreneurs have also spotted this opportunity and are traveling the world in search of suitable machinery – in Germany, Brazil and beyond.

Tractors and new agrarian relations? A research agenda

Some observers argue that youth-led initiatives in agricultural mechanisation, like those cited above, are potentially transformative. But is this transformative potential real, and if so, where, and for whom? What are the connections between agricultural mechanisation, new business models and the changing opportunity set and social relations around farming – particularly for young people?

The new push towards agricultural mechanisation in Africa raises critically important policy questions, and for these to be debated productively, the social and political dimensions of mechanisation must now be brought much more explicitly into the research frame.

Some of the questions to be considered include:

  • Are the examples above exceptional, or are they part of a new trend unfolding in developing countries rural settings, where mechanisation is attracting tech-savvy youth into agriculture, and in the process creating a new agricultural class?
  • Do the much heralded ‘agripreneurs’ add anything fundamentally new to production and social networks and gendered relations in the countryside?
  • In what situations can they help deliver a broader-based agricultural transformation?
  • Will their urban-rural connections, their links to capital and digital technology, and their views about farming, the environment and society, support or undermine the sustainability agenda?

Finally, agricultural mechanisation is usually seen as a way to reduce labour inputs and increase labour productivity. If mechanisation really takes off, what are the implications for those who see agriculture, and the food system more broadly, as providing decent employment for the millions of young Africans who will enter the labour force in the coming decades? Can they all become agripreneurs?

Image credit: Hello Tractor

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


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