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From HBS to Nigerian tomato fields: launching a dream into reality

By: Mira Mehta 25 Jan 2018

Editor’s Note: The below post is part of our Alumni for Impact series, which features alumni who are making a difference in the social sector, specifically in K-12 education, impact investing, nonprofit supportive services and social entrepreneurship. In this post, Mira Mehta (MBA 2014), shares her story of founding TomatoJos, a social enterprise that makes tomato production a sustainable, profitable business for the farmers with whom they work.

In 2008, I quit my job and moved from New Jersey to Nigeria to work for the Clinton Health Access Initiative. My new job had me traveling all over the country to see if HIV drugs were correctly moving to hospitals and clinics from the central medical warehouses, and if HIV patients were correctly moving through the health facilities to get proper care and treatment. On one of many road trips in northern Nigeria, I looked up and noticed that almost everything outside the car was covered in tomatoes – there was red as far as the eye could see. I asked a Nigerian colleague why all these tomatoes were hanging out by the side of the road, and he told me that this happened every year: a seasonal glut caused prices to crash and forced farmers to try to salvage their losses by sun-drying the tomatoes and saving them for the rainy season when the fruits were scarce.

It seemed obvious to me that the region would benefit from some kind of tomato processing factory to take all that fruit and convert it into a more shelf-stable product, like canned tomatoes or tomato paste. That way the farmers could make money off their harvest even in the peak season, and presumably, the factory would bring jobs and economic growth to a region without much industrialization. And so, a dream was born.

At first, I thought about my dream often and talked about it with friends ad nauseum. But I knew deep down that I didn’t have the courage to leave a steady job and start something completely on my own, and over the years I started to think less and less about tomatoes, and more and more about the next step in my career. In 2012, I applied to and was accepted at HBS, where I promptly abandoned everything I’d done before in order to immerse myself in exciting new worlds… Technology! Private equity! Brand marketing! I didn’t want to be labeled as a non-profit humanitarian who always talked about Africa, so I actively avoided the classes and clubs that I feared would box me in. However, when it came time to apply for jobs, I just couldn’t see myself sitting at a desk, working without passion for the product or conviction that I was somehow making a difference.

With support and encouragement from classmates, who, it turned out, didn’t actually think less of me for wanting to do something “social,” I set a goal for myself: from January through June 2014, I would try to determine whether it was economically, operationally, and politically viable to launch a tomato processing business in Nigeria. If the answer was yes, I’d go ahead and launch a company. If the answer was no, I’d start recruiting for jobs again after graduation.

In those first few months of research, HBS played an instrumental role: I leveraged resources from the Social Enterprise Initiative to travel to Nigeria so I could conduct primary research; I got feedback on my business plan and investor pitch from professors; I scoured the alumni network and reached out to anyone and everyone who seemed like they might be able to help me; and I contacted the protagonists of any relevant HBS case study that I could get my hands on. In parallel to all this research, I worked with three friends to compile the information into a business plan that we submitted to the New Venture Competition: Social Enterprise Track. Participation in the NVC forced my team to present the opportunity succinctly and structure a clear financial and operational roadmap that we could actually follow if we ended up receiving funding for the idea. What I learned in those six months surprised me. 

Although the market for both tomatoes and tomato paste is huge in Nigeria, no company seemed to be able to consistently capitalize on the opportunity, with many large industry players claiming their factories were running idle or below capacity. The challenge seemed to be that farmers, for a variety of reasons, were producing tomatoes at a higher cost per ton than the price at which factories needed to buy in order to be profitable. Furthermore, it turns out that the seasonal tomato glut that had first piqued my interest is quite short and very unpredictable; it’s difficult (if not impossible) for a factory to adequately plan its production days when it doesn’t quite know when the raw material will be available. 

Rather than adopting an “if you build it they will come” strategy which required investment in expensive factory equipment, and which seemed to have failed so many others, I decided to launch Tomato Jos with a “farmers first” approach. If I were able to commercially grow tomatoes and teach smallholder farmers how to grow tomatoes at the right cost per ton, and then schedule this tomato production so that a consistent volume of fruit could be harvested over a defined period of time, then it stood to reason that I would be able to make paste.

Four years later, Tomato Jos has made significant progress: we have doubled our yields every year and brought our cost per ton down to the range where processing can be profitable. As we look ahead to the next season, our goal is to scale the farming side of the business to the point where we can invest in our own factory and finally launch the brand.

For more information about Tomato Jos, check out the company’s website (www.tomatojos.net) and social media accounts (@teamtomatojos).