Tomato Jos is a for-profit social enterprise that is making the first domestic brand of tomato paste in Nigeria.
We operate across the full tomato value chain (farming, logistics, and processing) and source our raw material from smallholder farmers.
Despite the odds, Mira Mehta, a 31-year-old Harvard Business School graduate, has done her research and taken the plunge of launching her own start-up, Tomato Jos.
The US entrepreneur, who previously worked on health projects in Nigeria for the Clinton Foundation, said she had begun thinking about possible farming projects after driving past what had looked like crimson carpets as farmers dried their unsold crop on the hot tarmac. “The image of the pools of red lining the side of the road stuck with me and started making me think of agriculture in Nigeria and where the gaps were and it just seemed like a big waste,” Ms Mehta said, speaking from her base in a converted chicken coop on her farm.
Using $300,000 she raised in seed capital from six angel investors and a Kickstarter campaign, Ms Mehta plans to test her theory that a profitable agribusiness that also benefits local farmers and consumers can work in Nigeria.
The Bostonian leased three hectares in Nasarawa state from the only white Zimbabwean farmer still working there of a group of 20 who were given land by the state government a decade ago.
Poor irrigation and overuse of fertiliser in the first year forced the team to start again with new seedlings
The rest were defeated by poor infrastructure, confusing bureaucracy and the difficulty of importing essential inputs, such as machinery.
Tomato Jos faced problems in its first planting season last year — from poor irrigation to overuse of fertiliser in the nursery — that forced Ms Mehta and her team to start again with new seedlings.
Through applying some of the lessons learned with the first crop, the goal for her second harvest next year is to squeeze about 10 times the average national yield out of the land.
Ms Mehta says this is possible because she is deploying a more intensive fertiliser programme than local farmers, as well as using higher quality seed and more stringent nursery conditions.
In addition to her own crop, she plans to buy tomatoes from about a dozen local farmers. The fresh produce will then be taken to a processing facility in the city of Zaria, north of the farm.
The equipment was assembled in 2013, but has yet to be used commercially because it is owned by the National Research Institute for Chemical Technology (NARICT), a parastatal that does not have a mandate to sell its end-product.
Though Ms Mehta has yet to test drive her supply chain, she has a ready market for her paste. Ram Mahadevan, head of packaged foods for Olam, seller of Tasty Tom and De Rica, two of the most popular brands in Nigeria, says he is ready “to buy every kilogramme of tomato paste” Tomato Jos can produce.
Olam wants to support domestic supply and has suggested to the Buhari administration that it conduct a feasibility study into how to create and scale a processing industry. “It’s a very painstaking long-term process,” Mr Mahadevan says. “We’ve said to the government, ‘we will work with you and support you and try to make it happen.’”