Priyank Arora Collaborates with Hello Tractor to Help Smallholder Farmers in Africa

Priyank Arora
Priyank Arora is an assistant professor of operations
and information management at UMass Amherst

Tractor mechanization helps farmers plant 40 times faster, and 66% cheaper when compared with the time and cost requirements of manual planting. Mechanization of agriculture is considered crucial for sustainability for all, especially, to eliminate hunger and ensure food security. However, the use of tractors and other farm equipment remains dismally low among farmers in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia-pacific regions. This is primarily due to low purchasing power, and very small farm land sizes in these regions. For instance, across sub-Saharan Africa, 220 million farmers live on USD ~2 per day; and while the average farm size in sub-Saharan Africa is 2 hectares as compared with 178 hectares in the U.S.

Hello Tractor is an award-winning technology services platform that connects smallholder farmers with tractor owners to help farmers reap benefits of mechanization by eliminating the need for them to own an expensive equipment. Its business model can be best-described as the “Uber for tractors.”  In a short span of six years, the company has mechanized over 500, 000 hectares of land across 13 countries in Africa and Asia. While it has unlocked huge financial benefits for farmers (due to increased productivity) and tractor operators (due to better utilization of tractors), there are some obstacles that remain to be conquered.

This is where Isenberg’s Priyank Arora, and his collaborator at Duke University, Can Zhang, step in with their expertise in optimization and operations management techniques. Arora explains, “Unlike ride-sharing companies that have an easier handle over the number of the affiliated cars on the road in the desired location, farm equipment sharing platforms in emerging economies have to deal with a sparse and spatially-distributed supply of tractors.” Currently, in the absence of a comprehensive and data-driven optimization model, tractor operators crisscross broad geographies, missing out on revenue opportunities and wasting valuable time and fuel.

Arora and Zhang, worked closely with Jehiel Oliver, founder and CEO, and Olufunke Adebola, chief data scientist, at Hello Tractor, to develop a route optimization tool to suggest what route the tractor should follow to maximize profit and socioeconomic outcomes. The mathematical model that is at the heart of the tool uses information on demand patterns, Hello Tractor GPS monitoring device data, supply locations and attributes, weather forecast, and regional characteristics, to recommend the optimal route that should be followed annually. “Our innovative route optimization tool integrates multiple data sources to build a predictive model that helps tractor owners manage their fleet profitably, which in turn, benefits smallholder farmers,” says Arora.

Oliver and Adebola estimate that this will not only reduce tractor owners’ operating costs by 25%, but also increase their revenues by up to 300%. This is in large part driven by increase in the area served by each tractor as well as the number of farmers served. The deployment of this tool has already begun in parts of Nigeria and Kenya, with plans to scale up the deployment across other nations in Africa and Asia. In addition to developing the route optimization tool, Arora and Zhang are also using this novel context to explore other interesting research questions. For example, they are investigating how to incentivize booking agents (basically, local demand aggregators) to cluster together several smallholder farmers to be served by a tractor operator.

More details about the route optimization tool can be found here, and more details about Hello Tractor can be found here.