Sustainable Agricultural Mechanization

Tractor sharing and the future of agricultural mechanization


Before COVID-19 disrupted public life and international travel, thousands of hopeful buyers from around the globe would flock to a field in Cambridgeshire in the British countryside each month with a singular mission: strike a bargain at the world’s largest second-hand tractor auction. Here, local buyers would bid alongside dealers from Mali, Portugal or Afghanistan, and a sturdy tractor from the 1970s might attract as many bids as the latest high-tech harvester. The majority of machines would end up in shipping containers to far-away fields abroad, where they’d continue to ease the work of grateful farmers.

For more than a century, the tractor has been a symbol of mechanization in farming. The enduring demand even for older models speaks to the potential of machinery, basic or advanced, to fundamentally change the way producers manage their land and time.

Mechanized farm power can help farmers in different ways: It allows them to plant earlier and to the correct density, it helps them manage weeds and harvest on time. And it can improve post-harvest handling, which means farmers get more yields from their land. For smallholders in particular, having access to mechanized farm power can be truly transformational, because it lets them transition to market-oriented farming and break out of vicious cycles of poverty. What’s more, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that mechanization can allow farmers to keep growing and harvesting when farm labour might be scarce or working in close contact is undesirable.

From a global perspective, mechanization will be critical to meeting larger food security goals that will require farmers everywhere to do more with less, even while conserving the environment.

The popular tractor auction makes another point beyond the machine’s enduring usefulness: mechanization is often expensive and that makes it inaccessible to many. This is not just true in developing countries. Small producers, in particular women and youth, often don’t have the necessary capital, either as savings or via access to financial credit, to invest in the farm power and machinery they need to make their land and labour more productive.

But, increasingly, there are alternatives to the own-it-or-go-without-it dichotomy that’s prevented many farmers from accessing the services they need.

Mechanization hire in the sharing economy

Of the tractors on sale at the second-hand fair, chances are some have ended up working multiple fields through a growing number of tractor hire platforms.

“Tractor services available on mobile phones are a promising innovation that can help farmers access the right technology and farm power to improve their production,” says Josef Kienzle, Agriculture Engineer at FAO. “That’s particularly true for women, who in some countries provide as much as 80 percent of the farm labour but often struggle to mechanize.”

Applying the ethos of the sharing economy, these platforms have sprouted up across Africa and Asia to easily connect farmers and tractor owners through their mobile phones – either via smartphone apps or simple SMS quick codes to book a service for the day. Kenya’s Hello Tractor and Ghana’s TroTro Tractor were among the first to bridge this access divide with easy-to-use systems that let farmers schedule and pay for land preparation and harvesting services at the click of a button.

This new trend in shared mechanisation services is not just limited to the digital realm. At the community level, too, providing access to farm power is increasingly becoming a popular small business model that provides primary income or extra money to those who own machinery.

And just like tractors can spread seeds, the sudden spread of shared machinery has opened up an opportunity to spread new ideas about working the land in less damaging ways.

Save and grow

Misapplied agricultural machinery can seriously damage soils and other natural resources and set back producers in the long run. That is to say, mechanization above all needs to be sustainable. In the rush to mechanize in previous decades, much has been gained in agricultural productivity, but plenty has been lost, too. The structure and biodiversity of soils, for example, are vital to future food security, as is their capacity to retain water, nutrients and organisms that can control pests and diseases. But mechanization hasn’t always been kind to soils.

To counteract this, holistic approaches like Save and Grow have become guiding principles in FAO’s work with farming communities and the agriculture ministries that support them. The point of departure is that sustainable agriculture needs to work with, not against nature.

Luckily, mechanized services can work alongside the services that ecosystems already offer free of charge if they are not disturbed. Keeping soils healthy by swapping heavy ploughing equipment for no-till machinery is just one example of this.

FAO has been supporting the trend of shared mechanization services with guidance on how to set up such services with machines and methods that conserve natural resources.


Beyond cost and sustainability, there are also issues of design that have prevented smallholders from accessing appropriate tools to improve their production.

“Manufacturers of farming and processing machinery don’t always design with small producers in mind,” says Joseph Mpagalile, Agricultural Engineer at the FAO Regional Office for Africa. “Machinery that works for large agri-enterprises might not be appropriate for a family farm. Often, the capacity of such machinery exceeds the needs of the smallholder to such a degree that it makes no sense as an investment,” he explained.

To make sure the next waves of mechanization truly improve the lives of all farmers, it’s up to service providers, machine producers and modern entrepreneurs to build their offerings with smallholders and the environment in mind.

Perhaps most importantly, access to sustainable mechanization is vital to making a new generation of young people see a future in the farming sector. “The shared economy and the internet of things provide new entry points for youth to get involved with agriculture through entrepreneurship and mechanization-based businesses,” says Mpagalile. “And that’s key not only for food security but also for the development of rural communities.”