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How ‘Tomato Jos’ is Evolving Nigeria’s Local Food Market?

Tomatoes are a South American nightshade fruit. Despite the fact that it is technically a fruit, it is commonly consumed and served as a vegetable. Tomatoes are the main dietary source of lycopene, an antioxidant associated to a variety of health advantages, including a lower risk of heart disease and cancer. Yes! Tomato plants are tender warm-season crops that love the sun and cannot bear frost. It’s important not to put plants in the ground too early. Tomato accounted for about 60% of the global vegetable production at 177 million tonnes in 2016. It has the tendency of improving the lives of small scale rural farmers in most developing countries of the world. Besides the health benefits derived from tomatoes and tomato-based foods, the crop can serve as a source of income for farmers as a result of its numerous uses.

The tomato industry can increase the foreign exports earning of many African countries thereby contributing to GDP. In Ghana for instance, the tomato industry has been identified as an area that has the ability for poverty reduction because of its potential for growth and employment creation whilst in Nigeria, the production of the crop has improved the livelihood of most rural and peri-urban farmers. Although tomato can improve the livelihoods of rural farmers, studies have shown that the full potential of the crop has been under exploited because of many challenges.

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Tomatoes are Africa’s most consumed fruit (or vegetable); eaten by millions of people across our continent’s diverse religious, ethnic and social groups. Both in its raw and processed forms, tomatoes are central to most African diets and remain a regular ingredient in many soups, stews, sauces and dishes across the continent. Between 1971 and 2020, production – tomatoes of Africa grew substantially from 3.29 million to 22.2 million tonnes rising at an increasing annual rate that reached a maximum of 19.47% in 1975 and then decreased to 1.85% in 2020.

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Nigeria – Africa’s largest country by economy and population – is sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest producer of tomatoes. In 2019, Nigeria is the second largest producer of fresh tomatoes in Africa, producing 10.8% of fresh tomatoes in the region.
Over the last decade, the production of fresh tomatoes in Nigeria has grown by 25% from 1.8 million tonnes to an estimated 2.3 million tonnes.

Tomato is produced in most states in Nigeria. The major producers of tomatoes in Nigeria; Kano, Taraba, Gombe, Bauchi, Kaduna, Sokoto, Zamfara, Katsina, Jigawa. – Kano State is the most successful. Nigeria is the 14th largest producer of tomato in the world, second in Africa, but it is the 13th largest importer of tomato paste in the world and third in Africa. Nigeria spends up to $500 million annually on tomato imports (especially purees, pastes and canned tomatoes). Shocking! But why is it that Africa’s largest tomato producer is also the continent’s largest tomato importer?

Over half of the tomatoes harvested in Nigeria each year never make it to market. A lot of tomatoes cultivated in Nigeria are wasted due to inadequate storage and a lack of processing options. The majority of Nigeria’s tomatoes, for example, are cultivated in the north but must be carried to the more populous south on bad roads, resulting in spoiling along the route.

In addition to these difficulties, tomatoes are mostly farmed by small-scale rural farmers in most parts of Africa, who have limited access to decent seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. They also rely on natural rainfall for tomato production, which renders harvests uncertain and variable. Some private enterprises, such as Tomato Jos Farming and Processing Limited, have been putting up tomato processing factories throughout the country to address these voids and do things differently.

Mira Mehta, CEO of Tomato Jos

Tomato Jos is working in Kaduna to feed the country while also improving the productivity and profitability of Nigerian smallholder farmers. Education, logistics, and market access are all important aspects of the company’s mission. Mira Mehta, an American, founded the company and created a tomato processing business in Kaduna State, employing over 200 full-time and contract workers. Her company also had a network of over 3,000 smallholder farmers who worked with them year-round to produce yields that were considerably above the national average.

Tomato Jos: The Beginning

Mehta began working for a non-governmental organization in the health sector in 2008, and it was then that she discovered her passion for Nigeria’s diversity and prospects. She says, “Over the years that I’ve lived in Nigeria, I really grew to love the country … I felt that this was a place where I could actually create something, make a real difference and build an incredible company.” In 2014, a Zimbabwean who ran a feed mill in Nasarawa, another state bordering Abuja, offered her free land to farm on.

Image: The new Tomato Jos factory in Kaduna State.

To create a positive impact Tomato Jos was founded in 2014. Its focus has been on efficient tomato and paste production, as well as reducing waste along the value chain. Tomato Jos has grown into a 500-hectare company with hopes to partner with thousands of small-scale producers across 2,600 acres. They anticipate that they can bring in over $1 million in direct revenue to the local economy per year.

Mehta claims that, “Processing has always been the plan for Tomato Jos, but to get there, we spent a long five years working only on farming and primary production to make sure that we had a really solid foundation in place.” A group of investors, including Goodwell Investments, a Dutch venture capital firm, are backing the company’s ambitious aspirations for 2020. Alitheia Capital, a Nigerian investment management firm that co-owns the $75 million IDF fund for women-led businesses, invested 3.9 million for irrigation and processing plant development.

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The firm began ground on their tomato paste production plant in Kaduna, Nigeria, in January 2020. The company opened its tomato paste production in Kaduna in September 2021, roughly seven years after it began cultivating tomatoes in the country. The plant is reported to be Nigeria’s third-largest of its kind, capable of producing one carton of tomato paste packets every minute.

So far, the adventure

Tomato Jos’ factory was built with the support of Prosper Africa, according to Agripreneur Mehta. Tomato Jos was able to attract new investors thanks to Prosper Africa’s support and investment in the company’s growth. Additional financing was made possible thanks to this great assistance.

“Our goal up to now has been to create a supply of tomatoes at the right price, at the right volume, at the right quality over the right period of time, and that has been our focus – that is the foundation on which the factory will rest,” she explains. To do so, the crew required high-quality products from local farms.

Photo: Tomato Jos

Local farmers’ productivity and profitability have improved as a result of the company’s support throughout the years. With the help of direct finance from investors, the company is now able to directly assist over 70 farmers in boosting their average output from 5 to 22 metric tons per hectare, while also improving their average revenue by 455 percent.

Farmers frequently require additional labor during long planting or harvesting periods, creating an income-generating opportunity for thousands of people. Tomato Jos is now the largest employer in a 32-kilometer radius.

The global Covid-19 pandemic, which is in in its third year, is wreaking havoc on communities and countries all over the world. To preserve their workers’ health, businesses have to adjust to lockdown orders and social distance protocols. It was the same with the Tomato Jos team.

From left, Mira Mehta CEO Tomato Jos; Executive Secretary, KADIPA, Umma Aboki; Mary Beth Leonard, US Ambassador; Godwin Emiefiele, CBN Governor; Mallam Nasir El Rufai, Governor Kaduna; Chairman, FMN PLC, John Coumantaros; Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly, Executive Secretary, KADIPA Umma Aboki, during the ground-breaking ceremony. Photo: Premium Times

The company had just raised financing for the plant when Covid-19 first debuted. According to Mehta, the lockout was implemented around Easter, which is one of the busiest times for fresh tomato sales. “Our prices crashed because we couldn’t get our trucks with tomatoes from Kaduna down to Lagos and Port Harcourt, where the major markets are. We took a loss, a huge loss on the harvest,” she declares.

Furthermore, the factory’s construction, which had begun in January 2020, had to be halted, but it was able to begin in August, just in time for the €3.5 million processing equipment to arrive in November. The first production test took place in March 2021, following extensive staff training.

Nigerians shopping in and around Kaduna marketplaces were finally able to experience a locally produced tomato paste made with locally grown tomatoes in the first quarter of 2022, after effectively adapting to these circumstances.

Photo: Tomato Jos

Local processing, according to Mehta, provides her company an advantage. “Over 95% of the tomato products consumed in Nigeria come from abroad, so being able to produce a local product is certainly a differentiator in terms of quality and cost”.

Mehta says it’s difficult to compete with well-known companies. She says the plan isn’t to try and change the behaviour and the brand preferences of the older generation, who may be used to buying one product for decades. Instead, Tomato Jos targets new, young, up-and-coming professionals who are starting to make their own brand decisions, aiming to capture them as lifetime consumers.

The team is also dedicated to making a positive influence on the surrounding areas. Tomato Jos has worked on a number of projects, including supporting education and renovating roads in the area surrounding its operations, with the goal of expanding to assist a primary healthcare facility.

Looking ahead

Mehta desires that investors could witness the scope of the operation as well as the depth and breadth of the team firsthand. “I’m one of over 100 people who are extremely dedicated, and extremely capable, and who have built something that we’re all extremely proud of. And to see the scale of it, actually seeing thousands of farmers having a different opportunity, putting lives on a different trajectory, to see the factory … it’s easy to read third largest factory in Nigeria, but it doesn’t do justice to what it feels like to see this first class, world class facility,” she says.

The new tomato paste variant, packaged in a 65-gram sachet, is produced directly from fresh tomatoes grown in the country, thereby guaranteeing superior flavour and colour. Photo: Business Day

Tomato Jos, according to Mehta, presents an excellent opportunity for investors to partner with a company dedicated to delivering a quality product for the local market while also looking to expand into the West African and Diaspora markets, and the team is one of the few players in the market with a chance to win.

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