A Nigerian Tomato Farming Business Shows the Human Impact of Private Investment
“Our mission is to create a middle class in Northern Nigeria,” says Mira Mehta, founder and CEO of Tomato Jos. A banker turned aid worker turned entrepreneur, she is well positioned to take on the challenge.
Shortly after graduating from Brown University, Mehta traded in her finance job to join a nonprofit focused on global health. She moved to Nigeria where she spent hours in the car, crisscrossing the northern part of the country as she drove between health clinics and hospitals.
One season, Mehta noticed piles of tomatoes on the side of the road: it had been an unusually large harvest, and many of the tomatoes were left to rot because the farmers had nowhere to sell the excess. “It was a stunning visual,” she says. “There were tomatoes lining the roads as far as you could see.”
The extent of the waste was jarring. Nigerians rely heavily on tomato paste when cooking, and nearly all of Nigeria’s tomato paste was imported. “I had this very simple idea,” says Mehta. “There are all these tomatoes on the side of the road, and there’s a value-added tomato product that doesn’t seem to be getting made in Nigeria. Why can’t we just put the two together? It took me about five years of thinking about that idea before I took the plunge and acted on it.”
Mehta left Nigeria to earn a degree from Harvard Business School. When she returned, she began to build a model farm. Experimenting with different seeds, irrigation techniques and methods for growing, she honed techniques that increased yields and produced tomatoes with high enough sugar content to turn into paste.
Today, Mehta’s company — Tomato Jos — is well on its way to becoming a fully integrated maize, soy and tomato processing business. The company has three types of farming: a commercial farm where staff grow tomatoes using agronomic best practices, a model farm where independent farmers work for two years to learn how to grow tomatoes specific to paste production and out-grower farms where farmers who trained on the model farm work on their own land but sell their tomatoes to Tomato Jos. The company offers loan packages to their farmers, which include all of the inputs they need to farm for the season, as well as extension services like training and field visits. At the end of the season, the farmers owe Tomato Jos a fixed tonnage of tomatoes, and they can sell surplus tomatoes to the company for cash.
Seeking Outside Investment to Grow
When Mehta first started Tomato Jos, she spoke to many of California’s tomato processing powerhouses. They warned her not to invest in a processing facility before she knew whether she would have the tomatoes to run through it. “I took that advice to heart,” she says, and for the first six years, her team focused exclusively on getting the farming right.
It wasn’t until last year that she felt ready to build the factory and began to fundraise. It was an uphill battle. “We had been focused on yields, productivity and cost of production but not on revenue, so investors had a hard time understanding what our model was, why our revenue numbers looked so bad and why we were trying to raise five million dollars to put up this factory,” she explains.
To establish trust with its farmers and build out the network of growers needed to support a tomato paste factory, Tomato Jos paid farmers a high price for their tomatoes. This price was based on what they expected to be able to pay once the factory was operational rather than the market rate for fresh tomatoes. Because the company could not recoup the amount paid to farmers through reselling the crop on the tomato market, this approach resulted in temporary losses, which made conversations with investors difficult.
Fortunately, USAID stepped in. USAID’s support for Tomato Jos, and companies like it, advances the U.S. government’s Prosper Africa initiative to substantially increase two-way trade and investment between the United States and Africa. USAID aims to support small businesses around the world that have a deep social impact. Through INVEST, an initiative that mobilizes private capital for development results, USAID provided Tomato Jos with transaction advisory services from CrossBoundary, a frontier market investment advisory firm, that assisted Tomato Jos with raising growth capital. CrossBoundary helped Tomato Jos frame its business in a way that would make sense to and attract investors.
“The value that we got from CrossBoundary and USAID was really to help us figure out how to tell that story — about why what we were doing mattered and why we were now ready to invest in a factory,” says Mehta. “CrossBoundary helped us understand what metrics investors want to see. They also identified comparable companies to help us position ourselves and determine what kind of valuation we could push for. Finally, just the introduction to new investors who I didn’t know — that was also very valuable. Because those introductions came from CrossBoundary, which is a well-recognized platform, they gave me the first stamp of approval I needed to get to the next stage of the conversation.”
CrossBoundary worked directly with interested investors to understand what information they would need to be comfortable investing. For one investor, it was a market-sizing analysis on tomato paste in Nigeria. For another, it was a valuation analysis conducted by a neutral party.
“With valuations, it’s always a negotiation,” says CrossBoundary’s Kirtika Challa. “The investor is looking for a larger ownership for their investment. The founder and company are looking to raise sufficient money for growth, while still retaining control and their own ownership stake, to incentivize continued leadership and growth. CrossBoundary is able to serve as an independent advisor, bridging the gap and helping to drive towards a consensus and financial close. We also ensure that the entrepreneur has all the resources needed to be fully informed about the process and the implications of the fund-raise, including the valuation and fund-raise structure, to make the best decision for the growth of the business. This is particularly important because the entrepreneurs we support are often raising institutional capital for the first time.”
Ultimately, Tomato Jos raised $4.4 million in its Series A funding round. Goodwell Investments, via its Nigeria-based partner Alitheia Capital, led the round with additional investment from U.S. investors Acumen Capital Partners and VestedWorld. Tomato Jos put the capital to work quickly, placing an order for processing equipment and breaking ground on a factory. As the factory becomes active, the company will increase its full-time staff from 50 employees to approximately 70. In addition, Tomato Jos plans to work with thousands of out-grower farmers in the future, injecting more than $1 million into the local economy each year in the form of increased income for farmers.
From Investment to Impact
Tomato Jos’ work has ripple effects throughout the community. Farmers who work with the company see huge boosts in their tomato yields and their incomes. According to Mehta, the company transforms subsistence farmers into commercial producers with yields increasing from 5 to 33 metric tons per hectare, on average. “The average farmer in our program gets an income increase of about five to six times what they would get if they weren’t working with us,” she says.
This increase in income translates into important improvements in the lives of farmers and their families. “The farmers in our program are able to do things like re-roof their houses, put their kids in school and get school uniforms. We’re seeing a lot of improved education metrics and a lot of improved housing metrics in the area with the cohorts that we’re working with,” says Mehta.
Some farmers invest their profits in other businesses. One farmer, for example, opened a restaurant with the money she was able to save, diversifying her income. Many farmers reinvest their profits in their farms, and Mehta relishes when her farmers buy larger farms. “For us, that’s another sign of impact,” she says. “My goal is not to work with 1,000 farmers each farming a quarter hectare but to work with 500 farmers who are each farming two hectares. Then each individual farmer is actually shifting up into the middle class in Nigeria.”
When Tomato Jos began, it targeted early adopters and farmers who were willing to experiment with new approaches. Now, it has broadened its base to traditional smallholders and female farmers who don’t have any vegetable growing experience at all. “That’s been one of the most fulfilling parts of the business,” says Mehta. “To see the changes that these women are able to make in their lives as a result of the work that they’re doing with Tomato Jos.”
Laying the Groundwork for Future Investment
USAID’s support to Tomato Jos will have an impact beyond what the company can do with this round of funding. Most companies go through several rounds of fundraising as they grow, and Mehta will be well positioned for success in future rounds.
“When we work with entrepreneurs to support their fund-raise process, in addition to conducting the analysis needed, we also provide them with the tools and skills to understand the analysis and to be able to take on more of that process themselves in the future,” says CrossBoundary’s Challa. “The second time an entrepreneur is fundraising, they should be able to drive more of that process, or at least know exactly what kind of support they need, what the value of that support is, and where they can get it.”
The same is true for investors. Once a development agency helps investors close their first deal in a frontier or emerging market, more may follow. “Once an investor has made their first investment, it’s easier for them to make a case to their investment committee that they should look at more deals in the same country or sector,” says Challa. “They have already set up their networks there. They now better understand the local context and investment potential. And so, they should be more comfortable allocating resources to find other companies that align with their mission and goals.”
In this way, even a fairly small deal can have a demonstration effect and open up new flows of private capital into developing markets over time.
These new capital flows matter because there is a sizable funding gap between what it would take to address the world’s largest development challenges and the budgets of all the world’s international development agencies and donors combined. The new conventional wisdom is that these organizations can’t close this gap on their own; they must crowd in funding from the private sector’s deep pools of capital to improve the lives of people around the globe.
These investors bring more than cash. They demand rigor and financial sustainability, and, after they invest their capital in a social enterprise, investors have a strong incentive to help it succeed. In the aggregate, investments like these deepen local markets, build local capacity and make countries more self-reliant, all of which make the work of international development agencies, with their limited budgets, more sustainable.
In supporting Tomato Jos, USAID is advancing the goals of Prosper Africa and channeling millions of dollars in private capital to Northern Nigeria, one of the poorest places in the world. It is supporting a company that is creating jobs, raising incomes, increasing food security, making education more accessible and empowering women, all under the guise of growing sweeter tomatoes. We wish them a good harvest.
This post is made possible by the support of the U.S. people through USAID. The contents of this blog are the sole responsibility of INVEST, implemented by Development Alternatives Incorporated (DAI), and do not necessarily reflect the view of USAID or the U.S. government.