Interview with an American Female Farmer “Why I’m Launching Nigerian Tomato Paste Brand”

Since setting her foot in Nigeria at 5 am, 22 July 2008, to work for an NGO that was doing healthcare-related work in the North, Mira Mehta has seen agro-opportunities that will shape her entrepreneurial skills forever.
When she alighted from a British Airways flight that morning, she met with some Nigerians who have private sector-driven focused initiatives in Nigeria that will change her perception to also see prospects in every problem in the country.

Mira Mehta is today the Managing Director/Chief Executive Officer Tomato Jos Farming and Processing Limited; a ccompany that started in 2014 with tomato cultivation in Panda, in Nasarawa State but the idea started earlier with what she saw traveling across the northern states.
Speaking with Daily Trust on Sunday in her farm last week, she said the idea came to her when during her development work she saw large quantities of tomatoes been dried by the roadside because farmers were unable to sell.
“That idea came to my head and at the same time I was learning how to cook Nigerian food, so I was making stew, jollof rice and every time I picked up a tomato paste, it’s made in China or somewhere else. So I asked; why can’t those tomatoes on the road be used to make stew? That was the genesis of the idea,” Mira stated.

After conceiving the idea, she went to a business school and began research to figure out the possibility of setting up a tomato farm and processing facilities in Nigeria, specifically finding answers to three questions: is it possible to do it economically, politically and operationally? “If the answer is yes to those questions, I will go into it completely,” she said.

How the farm ended up in Kaduna
When she started the project in 2014, she went to 10 different locations in Kwara, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Plateau Kogi and then few places in Ghana.
Panda in Nasarawa which first hosted the company in a 10 hectare land is not considered as an ideal location for tomatoes agronomically, and from a farmer’s perspective, the farmers in Nasarawa State are not as advanced as the farmers in the North as far as irrigation or vegetable farming is concerned, but the first three seasons in the areas gave them the opportunities to prove their modules and then look for a permanent location to settle.

The choice of Kangimi location
According to her, when she started looking for land in 2015 and 2017, the Kaduna State government showed the strongest commitment to bring in the private sector.
“So they took me, within Kaduna alone, to 20 different locations in the northern part of the state. Every single location has access to water, and every location was near farmers who are already farming tomatoes at no cost to me. So I took that part of seriousness also seriously on my part and said, okay; these guys are willing to do this for me and I’m the smallest investor in the state. They really want this thing to work, so that is the reason we ended up in Kaduna state”, Mira stressed.

Why is the farm named “Tomato Jos”
Ms. Mehta told the reporter how she came about the name; “the name came from two things: if you go to Mile 12 market in Lagos, the tomatoes from Jos have a higher price because they thought to be higher quality tomatoes then we said “Tomato Jos” will indicate the quality of our product.
“Two, we wanted to have a very Nigerian brand, a lot of the main leading brands in the country sound Italian, they don’t sound Nigerian but “Tomato Jos” instantly tells the story.
“Sometimes people asked me how is Jos and I had to say awkwardly well we are not in Jos. I wanted to be in Jos initially because most of my close friends in Nigeria are from Plateau. We are still connected to Jos because we are located along Jos road here.”

Size of the farm
The farm sits on 500 hectares of land. 35 hectares have been cleared but only 10 hectares will be cultivated this year, but by the dry season of 2018, its plans to cultivate the full 35 hectares.
“In 2019 we plan to cultivate 200 hectares and 450 hectares in 2020. We think this is the maximum we can go in this location because there are areas that are rocky. We are starting smaller than we wanted to, that’s partially because of the high cost in clearing the land, the water pump station, setting up of the irrigation system- we plan to use drip irrigation system- that cost run from 3,000 to 4000 dollars per hectare so you can imagine how much it will cost to do that in 500 hectares” the CEO said.

Capacity of the proposed plant
The company is looking at a 300 tonnes per day facilities of raw materials. “What that means is if we are producing for 90 days, we will produce about 4,000 to 5,000 tonne paste a year.

The tomato paste project
“We are planning to raise the funds for our own processing facilities by the end of this year. In the interim period, we are working with a factory that is owned by the Kaduna state government in Ikarra LGA. We are working towards launching the brand through that facility by May this year. We want to launch the brand this year if we can but that factory is old so we want to make sure it can produce the right quality before putting my name behind it” Mehta noted.

The plant for the paste
The Ikara plant is owed by the Kaduna State government but lease to another private sector organization. TomatoJos has a relationship and agreement with them to produce the paste. They will pay the company cost plus 10% and they’ll produce the paste for the investor.
TomatoJos will, however, provide the raw materials, the packaging materials. According to Mira, the arrangement will “allow us to learn a lot about processing without having to own our factory; it will enable us to learn about the challenges with logistics. That factory is smaller than the one we want to build but even at that it will provide huge lessons to learn about logistics operations.”

Plans to survive in the market
The company boss reiterated that the reason why they are investing heavily in farming and so little in processing at the moment is to be sure if they can get the cost of production of tomato to N30 per kilogram-that is N30, 000 per tonne then they can produce paste competitively with the imported products.

The out-grower scheme
The farm also operates two structures of out-grower schemes farmers from Mararaba Jos, Rohogh, Goro and Kangimi Villages at the Kangimi Dam site. The first is a group of 20 farmers cultivating 3 hectares and the second 15 module farmers with a quarter of a hectare each on the company farm.

The out-growers received seed, fertilizer, chemicals on loan and a lot of very technical trainings. Farm sends extension agents to the out growers’ farms twice a week to see the farmers to monitor any change, any disease, pest, and application fertilizer to reduce any leakage.
“We have tight control and heavily monitor system”

In exchange for that, the farmer returns a set volume of tomato at agreed farm price to pay back for their loans; anything above that the farmer decides whether to sell to them or the open market.
“Let say the value of the loan on the input is 18 tonnes of tomatoes if the farmer is able to give us 18 tonnes of tomatoes is up to them if they want to sell to us or to someone else,” she said.

Tomato Jos’s 10years plan
Her dream for the farm in the next ten years is “have 10% market shares in the country. Ten percent of tomato sold and eaten in Nigeria would be tomato Jos brand. The factory and 500 hectares will be fully developed. We would have purchased additional land to continue our production, we will have expanded to 3,000 hectares or will have additional land in plateau state or another part of Kaduna state to continue our production, and we will have expanded the factory from 3000 to 2000 tonnes a day.”

Source: DailyTrust