IBM Research, the innovation arm of the IBM Corporation, announced a joint venture with Nigerian startup, Hello Tractor at the TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2018 held in Lagos last December. Both companies will be piloting, in the first quarter of this year, a digital wallet for agriculture, and a decision-making tool that will provide demand and supply visibility for farmers and tractor fleet providers. It will also enable banks to give farmers the equipment and technology they need to build a sustainable farm.

Hello Tractor began operations in 2014, connecting tractor owners and smallholder farmers who need tractors through a digital tractor sharing application. The application collects the various requests for tractor services i.e. for ploughing, from smallholder farmers, and pair these requests with the appropriate tractor owners and operators.

With the help of the IBM research lab in Nairobi, Kenya, Hello Tractor is adding new features to its app that will enable all parties on the agriculture value chain to add more value to their services. With the help of artificial intelligence, blockchain technology, and the Internet of Things (IoT), the digital wallet would be able to give farmers access to timely and relevant information to increase their yields, give insights to tractor fleet owners in order to save them time and give them more profits, and empower banks and financial institutions who give loans to farmers and tractor owners alike with information for better underwriting and portfolio management.

Dr. Solomon Assefa, Vice President, Emerging Market Solutions and Director, IBM Research – Africa at the introduction of the Digital Wallet announced that the vision of IBM is to leverage AI, blockchain and the Internet of Things to digitize, optimize, and streamline agricultural business processes to create efficiencies and new services from farm-to-fork around the world.

Ventures Africa spoke with Dr Assefa on the digital wallet, how IBM research would persuade smallholder farmers to adopt the use of blockchain and artificial intelligence in farming. Dr Assefa also sheds light on how the digital wallet would help farmers earn more profit.

VA: How easy has it been for the farmers to actually embrace technology in their farming, since it’s quite different from what they know?

Assefa: Currently, the farmers don’t interact with the Hello Tractor platform directly. While they can, due to a number of factors one being technological illiteracy, Hello Tractor has trusted agents in the local villages and communities who represent them. The farmer simply needs to tell the local agent what services they need and when, and the agent takes care of the rest. Supported by the platform, the agents can also provide additional advisory services to the farmers such as richer insights about the farms (e.g., soil type and characteristics), farm productivity (e.g., yield forecast, estimated disease, and possible intervention scheme, etc.), credit worthiness, etc. Please note that advanced farmers (with smartphones) can directly interact with the platform.

VA: Have the farmers who have been registered on the mobile service and digital wallet been able to use it effectively? What have been their challenges? How are you going to help them?

Assefa: Yes, 1,200 tractors in Nigeria are on the Hello Tractor platform, but as stated in the previous question, the farmers access the platform via an agent. Originally, the idea was based on the farmers using SMS, but this wasn’t the right approach for such high-level services.

VA: What are the cost-implications on the farmer’s side? Do they have to pay to access these services?

Assefa: Yes, similar to car-sharing programs, the farmers will pay a fee to the tractor fleet owners, who in turn will pay a fee to Hello Tractor for being on the platform. Banking services (e.g., credit facilities) will be available for farmers as the platform creates a digital footprint for every serviced farm and establishes a digital trust between farmers and financial institutions based on IoT data and remote sensing data (e.g., satellite data), coupled with blockchain and Artificial Intelligence technologies.

VA: Using the IoT, how do you propose to teach the farmers how to convert data received from cloud technology regarding weather, tractor use, analytics etc into the simplest language they can understand?

Assefa: The local agents will again support the farmers. For example, using the IBM AgroPad, the agents will help the farmers test the soil on their land. If the acidity is too high, they will be able to recommend the right fertilizer to use. The same agents will help the farmers to understand what crops will work best based on the soil and climate. The local agents are critical to the success of Hello Tractor. Also, we will be developing different modalities and interfaces to allow any farmer to benefit from such technologies.

VA: How will the adoption of blockchain-based supply chains help in reducing the gap between the market price, and the prices farmers receive for their goods?

Assefa: The Blockchain technology is a trusted platform for the entire agriculture value chain. Perhaps it’s best to explain with an example. Let use the example of a tractor fleet owner.

Juliet is the owner of Supreme Tractors Ltd. She owns two John Deere tractors and she rents them on the Hello Tractor platform. The weather for the season is excellent and it is predicted to be a bountiful harvest. Her current utilization is 99 percent, meaning the tractors are being used 99 percent of the time, and she wants to expand and buy five more tractors from John Deere, but she doesn’t have the cash or a credit rating. How can we build her a credit score?

Using the IBM and Hello Tractor technology we can predict her future revenue to determine such a credit score. Based on the size of the land, the location, historical crop and weather data, we can build models which can estimate the revenue she will make, which in turn can create a credit score. This is all captured in the blockchain and shared with the bank, who can trust that it’s accurate.

The same can be done for farmers. Using the IoT devices on the tractors and remote sensing data (e.g., satellite data), we can see the profile of the farm (size, soil characteristics, water uptake, etc.) and determine if it’s being managed properly and predicted yield forecast. These factors can contribute to the building of a credit score for the farmer.

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