‘With CBN’s support, our Kaduna tomato factory will meet 10% of demand’
• Tomato Jos operates largest active tomato farm, gets 7 times above average yield
Mira Mehta is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Tomato Jos, a leading agribusiness in Northern Nigeria that produces tomato paste and other agricultural products for the domestic market, sourcing inputs from smallholder farmers. After graduating from Brown University in 2006, Miss Mehta worked in the financial services and healthcare sectors in New York and Nigeria, respectively, where she gained valuable skills, developed an empathetic worldview and uncovered a business opportunity that would eventually compel her to found Tomato Jos. With the exception of two years in her hometown of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she attended Harvard Business School, Miss Mehta has lived and worked in Nigeria since 2008.Tomato Jos Farming and Processing Limited (TJ), a wholly owned subsidiary of Tomato Jos Incorporated, focuses on year-round crop cultivation of tomatoes, maize, soya, wheat, and other crops, as well as food processing and value addition for the Nigerian and West African markets. It operates 500-hectare farmland under lease from the Kaduna State Government, with potential tomato cultivation area of 400 hectares. Tomato Jos’ primary goal is to produce branded, retail-packaged tomato mix and paste, which will be sold to distributors and marketers in Nigeria.Mira Mehta spoke with The Guardian on sundry issues affecting the industry, the way forward and possibilities. Excerpts:
How will Tomato Jos achieve its objective of producing 10 per cent of tomato paste market with escalating insecurity in the country, especially the Northcentral and Northeast?
Insecurity goes hand in hand with a lack of education and a lack of economic opportunity. From what we can see, our company’s presence has actually decreased insecurity in the surrounding community of Kangimi, because many of the young people who were previously un- or under-employed are now fully occupied and earning fair wages. Regardless of where we are located – Northwest, Northcentral or Northeast – we believe that creating jobs, listening to the community and incorporating their feedback into our plans will continue to be a successful strategy to help stabilise insecure communities.
Electricity and insecurity challenges are part of retardants against Dangote Tomato paste project. How would Tomato Jos cope with the twin challenges where giants find it difficult to operate?
Power is a huge concern for every major manufacturer in Nigeria, not just the tomato producers! We can’t speak to other companies’ strategies, but at Tomato Jos, we generate our financial forecasts based on the worst case scenario rather than the best possible outcome. This means we have factored the cost of diesel and generators into our business model. As long as the factory can sustain a certain volume of tomatoes floating in each hour, we can make a good margin even without constant electricity. Regarding security, we feel very strongly that the presence of an operational factory and all the jobs that are created in the ecosystem will help to reduce insecurity in the area.
What is the wand that helps the company to move from 8 metric tonnes per hectare in 2014 to about 36 tonnes in 2020? Could it be that the rejected GMO tomato varieties are used?
Unfortunately, there is no magic wand to increase tomato yields. We do not use GMOs. GMO seeds are not produced commercially for tomatoes. So, even if we wanted to, we wouldn’t be able to use them. The real answer to how we have sustained such increases in yields is that we make changes in every single aspect of crop cultivation, from land preparation to fertilizer application to irrigation and weeding. When we train the smallholder farmers in our programme, there are over 100 different behaviours that we’re trying to get them to change, and this is why farmers must stay in our model farm programme for two full years before they can graduate to become out-growers.
There are insinuations that companies fraudulently make proposals in line with the Green Alternative of the government to secure cheaper loans from the CBN and use for importation or other businesses. How is TomatoJos different from gold diggers?
I can’t speak to what other companies do but for me as the CEO, my word is my bond. I learned early on in my professional life at BlackRock, a financial services firm in New York, that simply doing what I said I was going to do, when I said I was going to do it, made me a valuable employee. I took that same attitude and applied it to my business when I started Tomato Jos. Many of our early proposals to banks and other investors were rejected because we weren’t saying what those institutions wanted to hear. But we kept doing what we said we would do and we reported on our operational successes – and even more importantly, our failures – with transparency. I believe this combination of focus and openness has given our company credibility within the industry.
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