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LaVandez (Van) T. Jones, ’14, created an innovative cost-sharing model for African farmers wanting to lease pricey equipment to improve their crop yields. The business he cofounded with Cornell graduate Jehiel Oliver, Hello Tractor—sometimes referred to as an Uber for tractors—won the John Edwardson, ’72, Social New Venture Challenge while Jones was a student in the Full-Time MBA Program.

Black and white headshot of Van Jones in front of a gray background
Van T. Jones, ’14

Jones, who grew up in Cincinnati, had little business experience in Africa before Hello Tractor launched in Nigeria in 2014. Now, after five years of traveling the continent, the 2018 winner of Booth’s Distinguished Young Alumni Award has some practical tips for alumni looking to explore Africa’s economic opportunities.

Respect the complexity.

“Africa operates at multiple speeds,” Jones said. “There are the big cities that are increasingly globalized and connected, such as Lagos and Nairobi. But there can be a huge contrast within countries. You can be sitting in a café in Nairobi with incredibly good Wi-Fi, using digital payments, and then go into other areas where you’re not going to be tapping into that level of modernity at all.”

Use broad-based communication and payment platforms.

Jones recommended WhatsApp for convenient, reliable messaging and T-Mobile for multicountry cell-phone plans that eliminate the need for numerous SIM cards. He also recommended opening an account in a multimarket bank and, when possible, using a smartphone for bank transfer payments, which can be more secure than credit cards or ATMs. 

Tap into the development community.

“When you’re looking to Africa, you have to embrace the work being done by development organizations as well as multilaterals such as the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation, and bilateral organizations, such as USAID, that represent countries,” Jones said. “They are a really good way to understand what’s happening in the market, especially when you’re talking about large infrastructure.”

Strengthen ties in Europe.

“If you’re doing business in francophone Africa, you can get a lot done by spending a week or two in Paris, in terms of meeting capital sources or some of the large organizations that might be partners or customers for startups,” Jones suggested.

Consider similarities to other markets.

Hello Tractor is looking at opportunities to expand to countries such as Pakistan and Thailand, where farmers’ needs and financing constraints are similar to those of current customers in Africa. “There are a lot of common features associated with what makes a market attractive that don’t have to do just with adjacent geography,” Jones said.

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