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Mira Mehta: Daring to conquer where giants have stumbled

It is hard to find an American leaving the comfort of their country, having a Community Health degree from Brown University and a Harvard Business School degree in the bag, but settling to farm one hectare of land in Nigeria. From working to save children in Nigeria, to farming only one out of three hectares of land as all she could afford at the time, and now growing this to a 500 hectare holding, and a tomato processing unit in the works, Mira Mehta, CEO, Tomato Jos Incorporated has recreated the famed American dream, right on Nigerian soil.

When Mira Mehta, whose company owns Tomato Jos Farming and Processing Limited, came to Nigeria in 2008 to work with the Clinton Health Access initiative, her job entailed working with the Federal Ministry of Health, some state ministries of Health and United Nations organisations to try and increase the usage of paediatric HIV drugs. The objective was to get more efficacious drugs into the system and into the hands of patients.

A year later in 2009, she saw another problem in Nigeria, one that millions of farmers grapple with every year and a cause of poverty for many; post harvest losses. In Nigeria, it is estimated that at least 40 percent of tomatoes produced in the country are lost between farm and market. After months of toiling, many farmers lose almost half of their harvest from the farm, when in transit, and before it eventually gets to the market. Yet, Nigeria as at 2016 was noted in the Agriculture Promotion Policy (APP) document as having a 1.4 million metric tonne deficit for tomatoes.

Mehta saw both a problem and an opportunity at the same time. When she was initially deployed to Nigeria, she used to work at the Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital but lived in Abuja and would commute by road everyday she was to be at work.

On one of those trips, she noticed around January and February in 2009 that looking around, “everywhere was red because it was covered in Tomatoes; The Road, next to the road, the Rocks next to the road,” she said in an interview.

“Everywhere I looked I could see tomatoes and dried onions on the side of the road. It was just this amazing sight, and I was so surprised I asked the driver, what is going on? Why is this happening? And he said ‘well, there is an oversupply so the farmers can’t sell the tomatoes’. The price was not favourable (at that time of the year) so they are trying to dry the tomatoes and maybe sell them in the rainy season.”

Read also: CBN pledges support to revolutionise tomatoes production

It was at this moment she thought within herself, “There must be something else that can be done with the tomatoes”. Coincidentally, she also recalls that it was around the same time she was learning to cook Nigerian food such as stew, Jollof, Moi Moi and other delicacies, many of which required using tomato paste.

“Then it dawned on me; I just saw all these tomatoes on the road so why can’t we be making these tomatoes into paste?” That was how the idea first came to her in 2009, but she did not do anything about it until 2013 and 2014 when the business actually started.

Origin of “Tomato Jos”

The initial plan was to set up in Jos as according to Mehta, the tomatoes from Jos are recognized across the country as high quality, and they tend to fetch a premium in the market. Another catch, however, she was further drawn to the phrase “Tomato Jos”, which is a pidgin or Igbo epithet, as a name a person could call their favourite girl because she is so sweet and fresh. “With the name ‘Tomato Jos’ I feel I can project a brand that is proudly Nigerian, that signals high quality to consumers, and that we can have a lot of fun with when we do our marketing and promotions,” she said.

She had intended to set up Tomato Jos in Plateau, but when she came back to Nigeria in 2014, there was an offer to farm for free on a corner of one Zimbabwean farmer’s land. The man, named Bruce Spain had a feed mill in Nasarawa State, and offered her some land to farm.

“I was broke so I took the offer for free land,” she said. When the time came to look for a permanent location for Tomato Jos, the company searched in Plateau, Nasarawa, Gombe, Adamawa, Kano, Bauchi, Katsina and Kaduna. Eventually the land chosen (in Kaduna) emerged as the best option but by that time the company had already established itself under the Tomato Jos name. “So even though we are in Kaduna, we still call ourselves Tomato Jos,” she said.

Preparing to become a leading tomato processor

Mehta left Nigeria in 2012 to go to Harvard Business School and in her second year at the business school, while talking to some of her friends who are Nigerians mentioned the idea to set up a tomato Factory. One of them told her “go look up tomato processing in Nigeria on Google because Dangote is doing what you’re saying,” she recalled in an interview, to which she exclaimed “What! No way”. She went online and saw different articles on tomato processing in Nigeria, and rather than get discouraged, said to herself “this could actually be a real business. If the richest man in Africa thinks there’s an opportunity, maybe I should do my homework too”.

During the last semester of business school, Mehta worked towards putting a business plan together to understand tomato processing and if the operational and financial feasibility made sense.

She would later visit different processing facilities, for instance in California then had phone calls with processors in Italy. She also talked to a few processors in China. According to her, every single person she spoke with said, “the most difficult part of this business is the farming. The processing is actually not as difficult as the farming”.

Now that it was established the farming had to be fixed before processing could be viable, the first step then became how to farm commercially, the right quality tomatoes at the right price points. Once that was achieved, the company decided to teach small holder farmers how to farm the right type of tomatoes and achieve the right price points. “Now that we have also achieved that, the next step that we are finally taking is to actually put the processing facility in place,” she said.

Changing the narratives of poor yield and quality in tomato farming

In the first year when she farmed on one hectare, the farm yield was eight tonnes per hectare. “We were very discouraged because we thought we were coming in with all this special knowledge from California and we ended up just performing the same as the average farmers or just barely better than them” she recalled. However, over the years, the company’s productivity has steadily increased and this past year, the farm yields were 36 tonnes per hectare, many times more than the four to seven tonnes yield recorded by local farmers.

This, however, did not happen overnight. It took five years to achieve this feat. It was a combination of many things including irrigation, which is important, fertilizer; just like people, plants need to have nutrients in order to grow. There is also use of pesticide, land preparation etc and according to her “generally, what we found is that you cannot just do it in one season”.

Setting the future in motion

In January, the company had a groundbreaking ceremony for its tomato processing factory, with groundbreaking formalities performed by Nasir El Rufai, Governor of Kaduna State, Godwin Emiefiele, Governor of the Central Bank Nigeria (CBN), John Coumantaros, chairman, Flour Mills of Nigeria Plc, Mary Beth Leonard, US Ambassador to Nigeria.

At scale, the company expects to farm and support farmers on more than 3,000 hectares of land, source 150,000 tons of tomatoes, and produce 10 percent of the tomato paste and tomato products consumed in Nigeria. Tomato Jos has a primary goal of producing branded, retail-packaged tomato mix and paste, which will be sold to distributors and marketers in Nigeria.

Beyond tomato, the company intends to engage in year-round crop cultivation of maize, soya, wheat, and other crops, as well as food processing and value addition for the Nigerian and West African markets.

Over the years, a number of tomato processing companies have opened and closed in Nigeria (mostly because of raw material challenges), but Mehta is hoping to finally change this narrative and lead the way.

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