Women in Agriculture: ‘How I left U.S. to build tomato company in Nigeria’

Mira Mehta is the CEO of Tomato Jos in Kaduna State. The firm has received $10m (N4 billion) worth of investment. Ms Mehta says Nigeria needs infrastructure to boost agriculture.

Aside from tomatoes, she grows corn and wheat.

In this episode of our Women in Agriculture, she shares her experience on how she engages rural farmers.

PT: Your farm is located in Kaduna not Jos, and your farm is called Tomato-Jos. Why is not Tomato-Kaduna?

Ms Mehta: The name came before the location in 2013 when I first came about the idea. I was thinking more of the company, the brand and the product. And the tomatoes from Jos gets the premium in the market. They usually sell at a higher price so I wanted to mark my product with that quality, that when you buy my product you’re buying a high-quality product.

Another thing is that the name grounds the brand in Nigeria unlike other top tomato brands in Nigeria with Italian sounding names but I really wanted to make the name Nigerian and the last thing is that the name is like the Igbo slang to a girlfriend “my Tomato-Jos” which means very clean; very fresh; when we were looking for land, Kaduna ended up being the best part for us.

PT: Aside from this, what actually inspired you to go into agriculture?

Ms Mehta: I wanted to do something that was going to be highly impactful for a rural community and basically, I had been working for four years and I had done a lot of healthcare-related work and what I saw travelling around these clinics and hospitals, how poor most of the patients coming to seek medical attention are and I wanted to make a profit while touching lives so that was why I was drawn to the sector.

Mira Mehta, CEO of Tomato Jos
Mira Mehta, CEO of Tomato Jos

PT: You established this company since 2014, how has been the journey so far?


Ms Mehta: It has been quite uneasy and there are times when people don’t really understand what you’re trying to do and nobody else has your back through your ups and downs. Even up to our first production till now, there have been ups and downs. It has not really been easy.

PT: Capital for Nigerian farmers is usually difficult. How much did you invest when you started in 2014?

Ms Mehta: I can’t really say now but since then till now we’ve raised the capital to about $10 million. It has been quite difficult though.

PT: Having a capital of $10 million in Nigeria is big for an individual. Are you in partnership with anybody?

Ms Mehta: Well, we have investors, we are exploring a strategic partnership with other large companies in Nigeria but so far we have not made any partnership with anyone in Nigeria.

PT: Your seven years journey is long enough to be an expert in the sector, what will you say is the most difficult part of the sector?

Ms Mehta: There are many difficult challenges in the industry like having sufficient capital to work. Basically, we started business in 2014 and we’ve not yet launched a consumer product and have not started making a reasonable amount of money so I have investors that are super super patient and willing to give me the time to build all the infrastructure that I am trying to build. The bulk of the capital goes into infrastructure due to the lack of infrastructure in Nigeria. No good roads, no power supply, no network where we are, with very bad Internet.

All those basic things that are supposed to be in place are not so you’ll have to provide some fire yourself. Another challenging part of agriculture is figuring out how to source materials, how to get farmers to do something that they’ve never done before, change their behaviour, getting our staff to do what they’ve never done before. The way we operate is different from the way even a professional farm operates.

PT: What are the sizes of your farm?

Ms: Mehta: We have about 500 hectares but we are not cultivating all that. We are cultivating about 60 and 220 over the next 12 months.

PT: You run a large farm that requires both manual labour and machines. How many employees do you have and how are you able to manage them?

Ms Mehta: We have about 60 permanent employees to add 15 more soon and is pretty hard to manage people, to even get an effective manager too. Something I’ve learned over the years is that to be a good manager you have to be a good listener and possess good communication skills.

PT: How do you manage issues with fertilizers, seeds and inputs which are the basic necessity for cultivation?

Ms Mehta: There are frequent national shortages in Nigeria of things like fertilisers and other inputs that we take for granted in the US. So what we do is make purchases of thing we need over time due to the chances of scarcity when needed.

We get to build a long time line into our purchasing plan and it’s had taking us time. Before we buy fertilizers from the retailers but now we buy from the distributors directly.

PT: You started in 2014, there were already security challenges in the country and you definitely saw more coming. Why did you choose Nigeria, not other countries?

Ms Mehta: I was already here in Nigeria before starting the company. I lived in Nigeria from 2008 to 2012 so I already knew Nigeria pretty well and I went back to the U.S. for business school and when I finished, the business I had in mind I was like starting it in Nigeria or Ghana but honestly, there is a much bigger market in Nigeria as the population is larger and it’s a wealthier country. And also I’ve lived here before and had the connections that were useful for me to start a company here in Nigeria than in Ghana.

PT: Kaduna is a state suffering from a high level of insecurity. So how are you able to manage it?

Ms Mehta : I think about security all the time and it is getting worse all across the country. It’s quite difficult to recruit staff from other parts of the country because they’ll first say “these things that are happening, there’s no way I’m going there”. We try to make our environment safer through working with federal operatives like the military and NSCDC that are within the area.

We make them know about us and be aware of who we are and what we are doing. We are also in touch with the community and the local vigilante group. We’ve been fortunate over time. We try to make it safe for our staff that we have escorts accompany the staff bus to the farm. It’s quite expensive but I care a lot about my staff very much and I want them to feel safe coming to work every day, so security is a priority for me.

PT: Have you ever been harassed because you’re a woman because there’s this belief in Nigeria that agriculture is for men and women should not meddle into it?

Ms Mehta: I think the fact that I’m foreign, that has been cancelled out but I get a lot of sayings that goes like this which is supposed to sound as a compliment but I don’t take it as such; “You’re stronger than a man”, “you’re a man in woman’s body”, etc, but that’s not a compliment and guess what?

Women are capable of doing these things. I try to make it balanced though, that it is a male dominated thing and I don’t have a lot of women on the team who are more in the labour management team and I know how hard it is to do it at all and do it in a male dominated area.

PT: It’s pretty difficult for women in Nigeria to own land. Being a foreigner, how are you able to acquire land?

Ms Mehta: I don’t own any land, it’s the company that owns the land. We have a lot of farmers and women in our programme and they don’t have access to their own land so we have special point of trying to bring more women in our programme and letting them use our land to farm and learn all the techniques they need to learn on how to farm. When they graduate, we help them lease land because a lot of the community don’t lease land to women. So we are trying to support women farmers in our community to be able to learn and continue farming.

PT: When these women graduate and begin their own farming, are you in any kind of agreement with them?

Ms Mehta: Before they start training with us we get into this contract with them. After training, we help them with loans which includes the inputs they need on their farms, the education and extensions services we provide to them, and at the end of the season they pay us back in tomatoes or maize.

They pay back with a certain tonne of produce and anything they grow above that, we pay them in cash. We put a small markup on the products to enable us do the programme but to really make money we are going to process those tomatoes into paste to give us the revenue that’ll make us sustainable. The farmer programme that we do is just a way to help us get the required raw material to make our consumer products.

PT: Before the training begins, is there any financial commitment?

Ms Mehta: They enroll with a commitment fee of N10,000 which makes them liable for a loan of N300,000 after the training as well as many other inputs they’ll get from us. The training lasts as long as a season which is about 4 to 5 months. So over the course of the season, the farmer will get a lot of different types of training.

PT: As a commercial farmer, have you gotten any form of support from the government?

Ms Mehta: Presently, we are in the middle of finalising and drawing down a loan from the Central Bank of Nigeria to support the construction of the factory. That is the only form of support we have gotten and are appreciative of the government of the state for allowing us operate with ease in the state.

PT: If the Ministry of Agriculture were to empower the industry, what recommendations would you give?

Ms Mehta: Irrigation infrastructure should be one of the major things they should really invest in. Irrigation is probably the biggest challenge in tomato farming and farmers really struggle to get the resources to irrigate their tomato farms.

PT: Has family life slowed you down in any way since you started?

Ms Mehta: Yes, there are people who are distractions who do not want to see me succeed but there are situations where I need something urgently from someone but he doesn’t see the priority in that, not that it is intentional though but something that is super important for me will end up not being achieved because the other person felt it was not a priority.

PT: The present administration wants young Nigerians to venture into agriculture, some of them usually don’t have the knowledge of what they are asked to do. Let’s say a young person walks up to you seeking advice on how to go about agriculture, what advice would you give the person?

Ms Mehta: For me, you’ll have to have a vision in mind of what your goals are. Is it something you want to do full-time or just like a side hustle for supplementary income, or something you want to grow into something big? So what your goals are, is really important.

For me, it is trying to build a business worth over a hundred million dollars, and to get that I have to work in things that have a really big market. But generally knowing what you want to do is very important. Secondly, starting small and you know agriculture can be super expensive so experience is key which when you start small, you can learn and understand before increasing your value.

PT: So as a commercial farmer, you should have attended many international events, considering the events you’ve attended, do you think Nigeria can compete globally when it comes to agriculture?

Ms Mehta: Honestly, in today’s environment it’s very difficult. But I think there’s a world in which Nigeria can be competitive in agriculture but there are a lot of policies and infrastructure that have to be in place for our farming to be competitive. I’ll give you an example. Besides road and power I said earlier, even just having access to agricultural companies, the support services, will improve our system.

A tractor broke down and we could not get the repair parts in Nigeria so we had to order for in America. It took us three months to get the machines back to work on what should have been in three days. So to compete globally, Nigeria must put infrastructure that supports agriculture in place.

PT: You mentioned using tractors. So aside tractors, what other machines do you use on your farm?

Ms Mehta: We have made big investment security and I’ve talked about irrigation earlier as one important part of agriculture in the dry season. Even though it looks like a bunch of pipes sitting on the ground, it’s quite expensive. It costs about $4000 per hectare to get irrigation access. We also have machines in our factories that also cost a lot. Also, tractors because they pull most of the other attachments that carry out different other functions.

Mira Mehta, CEO of Tomato Jos
Mira Mehta, CEO of Tomato Jos

PT: You earlier said your crops are seasonal and there are times when you wait after cultivation for plants to grow before harvest. During these times, what do you do?

Ms Mehta: We don’t just wait around to see them grow. Tomatoes are one of the hardest crops to grow and they have a lot of things that could go wrong. You have to irrigate the crop at least once in three days depending on the type of soil you’re cultivating. So you have to have people moving the pipes around, weeding, checking for abnormalities, applying fertilizers etc, a farmer is expected to be in the farm every day to check on his plant. We actually have a farming protocol that explains to the farmers what they are supposed to do at each point of the plant cycle.

PT: At that time you’re not selling anything so what are the financial implications?

Ms Mehta: It’s hard because in farming you literally have to put all your money into the ground and wait for your money to come back from the ground. It is really quite capital-intensive and also difficult. There is this cash cycle, how long do you put your money in the ground before you begin to get it back? In farming, it is very long but then for processing it becomes longer because you take the cultivated tomatoes for processing into paste and then sell for a very long time. From the time of cultivating to actually selling the last product can take up to 18 to 24 months.

PT: Can you give us an overview of your company? What else do you do?

Ms Mehta: We are a farming and processing factory. We farm tomatoes and process them into retail packaged tomatoes and we start selling them in the market. We grow maize and cereals. We do farming and processing.

PT: Assuming you’re not into agriculture, what other line of business would you have ventured into?

Ms Mehta: When I was in business school I was looking at different opportunities post graduation. Real Estate was one among other opportunities.

PT: Can you give us a brief background about yourself?

Ms Mehta: I grew up in Boston, I went to Brown University where I got my first degree, I was a student athlete and was a member of the team and became a captain where we were doing well. That really shaped a lot of my college year being an athlete and a very competitive person. After graduation, I worked in a financial institution for two years and in 2008 I moved to Nigeria to work for the company.

But my work was not really impactful as I wanted with my life. So after working for four years, I went back to the U.S. in 2012 where I went back to school to acquire my MBS, Masters in Business Studies. That was when I started to consider what it will require to develop tomatoes into a company. I had the idea but I never had the courage to start anything at that time but going to school helped me gain confidence and courage to start the company.

PT: Do you belong to any association or cooperative?

Ms Mehta: Yes I do. I belong to the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria and we are in a tomatoes policy group through the industry trade investment.

PT: Your journey looks like it just started, where do you see yourself in five years?

Ms Mehta: Well, hopefully in five years, Tomato-Jos will be a household name across Nigeria as I’ll love to see this compost reach that in Nigeria. That’ll be the dream.

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