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Why These MBAs Are Keen On Tomatoes

Mira Mehta and Shane Kiernan of Tomato Jos listen to farmers in Nigeria

Mira Mehta and Shane Kiernan of Tomato Jos listen to farmers in Nigeria

Take a moment to think about a Harvard MBA graduate. Traditionally speaking, they probably end up working at McKinsey, Goldman Sachs, or Google. Now think about tomato paste. The two topics couldn’t have anything in relation, right? Wrong. Mira Mehta, a recent HBS graduate, is taking her degree to the tomato farms of Nigeria to innovate the tomato paste industry with her new company, Tomato Jos. The crazy thing is, her and co-founder, Shane Kiernan are entering into an incredibly large and untapped industry.

Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa and it is growing at about a 7% rate for real GDP. Oil and gas are the main sources driving the Nigerian economy but agriculture is also impactful. In 2013, 16 billion naira (about $97,358,665 U.S. dollars) was spent by Nigeria to import tomato paste. It is a staple in nearly all Nigerian dishes. Nigeria is the 13th largest producer of tomatoes in the world, harvesting about 1.7 million tons each year. About 50% of that production is wasted because of lack of processing, storage facilities, and poorly developed marketing channels.

A SEED PLANTED

The dream began years ago for Mehta when she worked with HIV drug supply chain management in northern Nigeria. During her time of helping small communities get access to HIV drugs, Mehta noticed miles and miles of tomato fields. She also noticed hundreds of tomatoes rotting. Everywhere. Mehta soon learned about the amount of tomatoes produced in Nigeria, the amount wasted, and the amount of money spent by Nigerians each year to get a product from China they could easily produce within the country.

The light bulb went off and her idea to produce tomato paste within Nigeria ended up on one of Mehta’s HBS admissions essays. “In one of the last classes at Harvard, they asked us to raise our hands if we were actually planning on doing what we wrote about on our application essays,” says Mehta. “I think I was the only one who raised my hand.”

During her second year she met Shane Kiernan, a student at the Harvard School of Public Health. He had a similar dream of developing Nigeria’s tomato industry but also diverting the country away from primarily oil and gas production. The two decided it was time to pursue their analogous dream.

Mehta and Kiernan began extensive research and put a team together for the Social Enterprise Track at the HBS New Venture Competition. The team placed second, securing a $25,000 award to create the business. Since then, it has been a whirlwind of research, securing land, establishing incorporation status in the U.S. and Nigeria, and creating an aggressive business model. After extensive research and an examination of 16 different farming areas, Mehta and Kiernan decided on some land near Keffi, Nigeria.

HOW IT WORKS

The fragility of tomatoes coupled with rural conditions and poor transportation infrastructure in Nigeria, lead to a minimal lifespan for Nigerian tomatoes. It is a localized crop. Additionally, farmers have no way of transporting the fruit to the market in a way that will keep the product fresh. If the farmer happens to get to the market when other farmers are there, demand plummets. Farmers are forced to sell their product for less than production value or transport them back to their farms. Small farmers in Nigeria aren’t exactly equipped with refrigerated semi-trucks.

The unstable and unlikely market has led farmers to be less incentivized to make investments in better seeds, fertilizers, or farm equipment. Tomato Jos will offer these farmers forward contracts where they will buy all tomatoes passing a quality test. The tomatoes will then be harvested and transported by Tomato Jos and turned into paste. Then the farmers are provided with farming equipment, better seeds, and fertilizers.

Another problem for tomato paste production in Nigeria is the tomatoes produced are often not ideal for paste production. They are watery, full of seeds, and not as sweet. The improved seeds and different growing practices should solve these problems and produce a tomato more suitable to be turned into paste. Kiernan is currently in Nigeria creating a greenhouse for tomato seedlings, working with local farmers, and securing processing and packaging equipment and facilities.