Dizengoff began operations in Nigeria in 1958. We represent the sole importer and distributor for the world Number one tractors and implements such as ploughs, harrows etc. We import them and provide technical support, warranty support, ongoing repairs.
We are into a relatively new area in Nigeria which is greenhouses with drip irrigation solutions. Greenhouse technologies are a combination of the protective environment and all the technologies of irrigation and chemicals. Today, Kenya is the world’s largest supplier of cut flowers and roses. It is a $1billion export income earner for Kenya but 30 to 35 years ago, it was not so. Our sister company in Kenya has installed over 80 percent of all the greenhouses in Kenya. About 350,000 people are involved in that industry. It is a major part of the agric sector in Kenya.
We looked to use that technology and its application for West Africa. So, about four to five years ago, we started to see the combination of factors which suggest that bringing that technology to Nigeria would be helpful for production of market garden vegetables, precisely tomatoes, since all Nigerians eat tomatoes everyday in one form or another.
At least 2.5 million tons of tomatoes are consumed every year in Nigeria. But only 1.3million to 1.4million tons are grown yearly through the old traditional open fields methods. Half of what is grown is even wasted before getting to the market because of the poor infrastructure- the logistics challenge of getting farm to fork.
There is a big gap so Nigeria imports fresh tomato pastes, tin tomatoes and even fresh tomatoes. More than half of what the country consumes is imported, which is crazy. So, we have started to adapt this greenhouse technology for Nigeria to grow tomatoes.
Open fields versus greenhouses
By growing tomatoes in open fields Nigeria, like other Sub-Saharan African countries will deliver yields of no more than seven tons per hectare. Last year, we had 294 greenhouses installed; on average they deliver 264 tons per hectare. With the greenhouses, our growers produce tomatoes all year round, anywhere in Nigeria. Whether in Calabar to Lagos, to Katsina, we have got our greenhouses all over Nigeria.
The reason they are so successful is not just the technology, or the physical component we put together, it is also the know-how and the supervision of that know-how every single day. It is applying the technology in the right way every single day. So, we supply managed greenhouses. We install them in the growers’ farms, we bring in our own supervisors and we pay them salaries.
What we are trying to do is not just to fill the import supply gap, we need to manage the technology so well that the farmer can have a better income to make it attractive for them to move from the subsistence kind of farming common in Africa to a business. It is crazy for Nigeria to use proceeds from crude oil to import food, in a nation where if you put a stick in the ground in any part of the country, it would grow. There are different types of soils in different parts of the country but they are all very fertile.
Our managed greenhouse is a turn-key business. We have it structured in a way that it can deliver full returns within the first year of the business. We also help them on the supply chain for example, a lot of our growers are supplying Shoprite and there is still need for more supplies. There is also demand from the hospitality industry -hotels, restaurants etc. Airline companies are also buying cherry tomatoes from our growers so what we are trying to do is to help Nigerian growers have a sustainable agribusiness at attractive levels of returns and profitability.
The major challenges are to ensure that the application of the technology is applied every single day. Plants are like little children. If mothers do not nurture – feed, clean, shelter their children every single day, they may fall sick and die. So also, if you do not nurture the plant in the right way, feed it properly, water it properly, nurture it, handle it properly, protect it from pests and diseases or whatever, the plant would die. That is the reason we have got our supervisors within our installations. There is no Christmas day off or Sunday off in taking care of plants just like little children.
Another challenge is that Nigeria like all countries within 10 degrees of the equator has bacteria wilt virus in the soil which attacks and damages plants. There is no acceptable chemical treatment because this will damage the environment within the soil, so we have to pre-treat the soil by heating it and then we separate and put the soil in bags to grow the plants.
We use plants that keep growing and growing. There are basically two types of plants the determinate with very limited lifespan and the indeterminate which will live as long as you allow them to live. Indeterminate seed varieties will give up to 26 clusters of tomatoes if they are nurtured in the right way. They will give bigger tomatoes and deliver harvests of tomatoes on a consistent basis. Those plants economically will survive eight to nine months but the normal type of bush tomatoes that subsistent farmers grow in open fields will last four months, give one harvest of crop and die.
So we are giving the grower something that will constantly yield, using certain types of varieties bred for tropical environment of which one is 500g to 600g in weight.
There are also two types of growers – Those growing for the fresh tomatoes market and those growing for processing. In Nigeria, we are seeing the beginning of canning plants because a lot of women like to use canned pastes as additives to their soups and stews.
So we talk to our growers and ask what market segment they will be focusing on – fresh tomatoes or processed tomatoes. We provide everything- seeds, all chemicals, all equipment, insurance, supervision, meetings, everything. What they need to bring is the land and the investment funds.
We choose our growers carefully. When people come and say they want to buy green houses from us. I talk with them and if I find out they are the get rich quick kind of person, I will not sell to them because they will have failure and the concept and the confidence that this can work may be damaged. My staff get stunned that even with money on the table, I say to some people you are not the right kind of person to be a grower.
What we all want is sustainability. Nigeria is the 13th larger consumer of tomatoes in the world and I want Nigeria to grow their own tomatoes. I do not want them to fail at it. That was what we did when we started growing flowers in Kenya. We told a lot of people they do not have the commitment, the staying power.
If Nigeria can meet its own indigenous need of tomatoes, it can then start looking to meet other countries’’ needs.
The closer one brings the cultivation of the crop to where the market or consumption is, the less volatile will be the price of tomatoes. In other words, most of the consumption in the urban centres is mostly in the south – Lagos, Calabar, Port Harcourt, Enugu. When too much of the indigenous tomato supply is coming from Plateau, Katsina or Kano state, it will result in very expensive costs from site of growing to where the market is.
My greenhouses work anywhere in Nigeria because production is not dependent on climate since it is in a climate controlled environment. Another big challenge is the humidity. Most fruits like a relative drop in temperature – humidity at night. Nigeria does not get that dramatic drop in relative humidity at night especially in the south. Fruits and vegetables like cold nights, when there is no sharp drop in relative humidity, the pollen is too sticky to release but we have a unique technology which actually creates pollination regardless of the relative humidity. It is like artificial insemination.
We introduce pollen to the plant so the plant will move to the pollination stage. That is the reason we put supervisors in our greenhouses to apply that technology very carefully and they can as well do it to during the day.
Distance and time creates damage to the crop. If tomatoes grown by our growers are put side by side with imported tomatoes from South Africa on a supermarket shelf, Nigerians would buy the Nigerian tomatoes because they are younger. The Imported South African tomatoes are seven to 10 days older, and would not sell besides the fresh Nigerian tomatoes. The seed varieties used for Nigerian tomatoes within the Nigerian environment are right for Nigeria but the South African ones are softer probably because they have travelled for days
When a plant gets too much water, it drowns and the roots do not get developed. It does not become strong enough to pass water through the plant. But our modern technologies deliver the right amount of water at the right time and right place.
Every time a child is sick, if you keep giving him medicine, he would become weak. If you want to nurture your child to fight infection, you have make him strong, that is exactly what you have to do with a plant. You have to feed the plant and water the plant in a very controlled way that it would become strong and the water has to be clean. The greenhouses stop too much rain. Bacterial wilt virus is actually in the water table in Nigeria, not just the soil, so we also pre-treat the water.
Our target clients are primarily the private sector. We have some of our greenhouses in government locations but the yields are much lower than the private sector growers due to diversion and distraction.
There have been many schemes to improve agriculture in Nigeria. I think the Agricultural Transformation Agenda (ATA), making agriculture a business is a move in the right direction. The new government can adapt it. It is essential to get government out of the day-to-day running of agribusiness. The population is growing so much. There is the need to feed the people and there is also the social aspect- so many people are unemployed. The oil industry and service industry cannot provide enough jobs. What we need to do is to get young people to see that there is a middle class prosperity available to them in agribusiness with the right tools, equipment and financing. That is what they did in Kenya.
I first came to Nigeria in 1978 to help set up GSK. I left in 1982, came back in 1986 to set Smithkline and Beecham. I left and came back in 1997.