Initially, Mira Mehta’s intention was not to start any venture in Nigeria but to resume her job at Clinton Health Access Initiative. But as time goes by, her passion and inquisitiveness paved way for her to own acres of tomato farmland that is producing tomato paste known as Tomato Jos in Plateau State, Nigeria
According to Mehta who spotted rural farmers struggling with their tomatoes rotting out before reaching consumers said that her good friend who is a son of a professor at Ahmadu Bello University was taken her around Northern Kaduna and showed her a particular tomato town where tomato farmers face market glut yearly prompted her to take up the challenge and start something around it.
Mehta said at one day International Sustainability Conference organised by First Bank Sustainability Centre with the support of Heinrich Boll Foundation at Lagos Business School, Lagos.
“Every challenge I saw in the country represent an opportunity for me whether poor road infrastructure, poor health care, poor power supply and the issue of food because there were lot of problems I wanted to solve when I saw these challenges here”
She said that tomato was one of the most obvious problems at that time and many companies were trying to solve it.
There were companies that have seen the opportunities at that time but for me, human resources and development are important and has huge opportunities in terms of education and vocational training for young people to be able to position themselves to get better job to further their own businesses”, she said.
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Mehta who was not in haste to start anything until she had gathered enough information on the idea revealed that she did not start until she read articles by Dangote doing the same thing in 2013 and encouraged her to start, knowing that challenges are different on different scale.
She mentioned challenges in infrastructure, trucks bread down, buying of diesel, paying for maintenance and perception of people towards Northern Nigerian.
“Most people in Lagos don’t want to come to the North but the reality is very diverse and there are hundreds of different languages, different tribes and different cultures. They term the whole north as Hausa people, it’s a misleading term when you get to the community, and you see the differences between them either from village to village speaking different language”
According to the Harvard graduate, the venture company has thirty four employees and fifteen assistant labourers that work on the nucleus farm has not gotten any subvention from Nigerian government but sourced for fund to start the enterprise that is well known in Northern Nigerian.
She said that the company is now working with Nigeria Export Promotional Council to understand what export processes is all about but has not been able to receive any support in terms of agricultural loans from government, she hope to get that in 2017.
If she is not also planning to leave the country as another tomato paste company, Erisco that left due to operational challenges and cost of production, Mehta said that the company started on different ways which Tomato Jos will not follow.
“They are based in Lagos so the challenge of transporting tomato alone from the north to the south is going to make the business unprofitable”
“We are focused solely on the north, our import is very low, the only thing we have to import is fertilizer which is blended and package in Nigeria though it is still expenses but everything we are still using are still local product so we don’t face the FX challenge most organisation face. For us we are trying to do the business with sizeable business model and that enables us to produce in Nigeria and for Nigerian market, she said.
“Tomato Jos” means “cute girl” in Nigerian language, “because the tomatoes from Jos are especially sweet and juicy.”
In a way to empower farmers in the communities, she said Tomato Jos will teach farmers best practices on a model farm, so they can set them up for success on their own.
“With new techniques taught, the startup will equip farmers with high-quality seeds, fertilizer and on-site advice when problems arise. When the crops are ready, Tomato Jos will buy farmers’ tomatoes at a fair price and then use them to make an all-natural tomato paste they hope to start selling in grocery stores”
“In terms of sustainability in the communities, we are trying to involve the communities through agro program to contract tomatoes from farmers and also through employees benefit program that will be provided to employee such as loans and other forms of assistance getting them bank accounts, helping them to save instead of giving them in cash, things like that we are trying to do to increase our sustainability within that community and to keep the communities’ desire to keep us running in business”, Mehta mentioned.
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