Episode 025: Mira Mehta – The Tenacious Founder of Nigeria’s Tomato Jos
About Mira Mehta
Mira Mehta is the founder and CEO of Tomato Jos, a tomato paste company based in Kaduna, Nigeria.
You can connect with her @ShoutsAndMiras and @TeamTomatoJos on Twitter.
Mira was born and raised in New England in the US. Fresh out of college, she landed her first job at Blackrock, a large asset manager. Driven and ambitious, Mira quickly realized that she’d never have a leadership role, as her department was just a “line item” in the company’s P&L.
She was looking to make more of an impact and joined the Clinton Health Access Initiative, which sent her to Nigeria. While she was once driving to Kano in northern Nigeria, Mira saw a glut of tomatoes lining the side of the road. The quantity of rotting tomatoes was so great that the road resembled a red carpet.
The image lingered with her. Why was Nigeria, which imports hundreds of millions of dollars of tomato paste per year, not able to manufacture tomato paste locally from its domestic tomato crop? After finishing her MBA at Harvard, Mira still couldn’t shake the tomato processing idea, and she decided to bite the bullet. In 2014, Mira moved to Nigeria to set up her tomato processing company, Tomato Jos.
Mira talks candidly about the difficulties and challenges inherent to Nigeria’s agroprocessing sector, why profitable farming is the key to any successful processing project (and explains why Dangote’s tomato paste factory rests idle), the ins and outs of her outgrower program, and how she works with her investors.
Plus, Mira gave one of the most thought-provoking answers to one of my favorite questions about where she’d travel in Sub-Saharan Africa to improve her business --- so don’t miss her response.
Without further ado, here’s my conversation with Mira Mehta.
What We Learn from Mira – Lock down Your Supply Chain Before Processing
Mira says that the success of any agroprocessing company depends on sourcing reliable and reasonably priced raw materials. For example, you need to guarantee at least 80-85% capacity in your factory for at least 45-50 days in a row in order to have a viable tomato processing business. After five years of experience, Mira realized that she had to focus on getting the farming 100% right before she can turn to processing.
Mira’s Advice on Agroprocessing -- (She also Debunks Some Persistent Myths.)
Make sure that you can guarantee the right quality of tomatoes at the right price. Processing is not that difficult. It hasn’t really changed in 60 years.
There’s no silver bullet to increasing yields. But the challenge is that Nigerian agriculture is 60-70 years behind American agriculture, which is partly due to infrastructure. Farming is always going to be more difficult.
There’s no romance in small farming. It’s hard to get yield increases at such small levels because it’s inefficient to hire a tractor. Investing in drip irrigation and mechanization is much more expensive on a per hectare basis at a quarter hectare than at five hectares. If you can work with farmers or farmer groups to increase the contiguous amount of land at their control, they can start to make much greater gains in efficiency.
Mira’s Top Quotes
It’s really important to figure out how to get to no quickly. I raised a little over $2 million last year and I thought it would take four or five months. It ended up taking a year and a half to raise that money. It was quite difficult. A lot of it was not being able to get to no. People feel bad when they don’t want to invest and they’ll often drag you along or say maybe and I actually found that it’s less painful for everybody if you can know that they’re not going to be a viable investor for you. I try to make it easy and painless for people to back out even if we’re going through due diligence.
But what I was always struck by was all of these mostly women and kids are waiting here for hours and hours on HIV day or clinic day. What have they given up to be here waiting in line? How long did it take for them to get here from their house to this place? Are they at risk of losing a job? Are they at risk of losing income? Are they spending money to do this, which won’t enable them to pay for their kids’ school fees? What’s the trade off of them coming here and waiting all day to see the doctor versus not? That seemed to me something that I was more passionate about trying to solve than making sure the medication is there when they get to the clinic.
One of the mentors that I first had when I moved to Nigeria was Sim Shagaya who ran up until relatively recently the online sales company Konga. He’s a serial entrepreneur, and he had gone to Harvard Business School. I ended up going there as well. And he and his best friend saw every problem in Nigeria as an opportunity. Everything that doesn’t work in this country — there’s money to be made by being able to make it work. That was the lens through which I saw a lot of challenges in Nigeria.
Sim Shagaya of Konga
Affiong Williams of Reel Fruit
Why Mira has double downed on tomato farming [3:42]
Her smallholder farmer program [5:18]
What Mira learned at her first job at BlackRock [7:57]
The hidden upside of being a secretary at meetings [8:45]
The move to Nigeria [10:34]
Clinton Health Access Initiative [13:12]
Why Mira wanted to found her own company [14:12]
How she got into tomatoes [18:12]
The key to viable tomato processing [22:54]
“There’s no silver bullet to this business” [26:16]
Ghana’s Blue Skies [27:19]
The ins and outs of Tomato Jos’ outgrower program [31:30]
What they got wrong working with farmers in the early years [35:35]
The importance of identifying early adopters [37:44]
Why Mira believes in “being impatient for profit, not scale” [39:30]
Her near-term goal of increasing land size [42:00]
Why Dangote’s tomato factory rests idle [44:00]
The backstory of the Tomato Jos brand [46:15]
How Mira stays resilient [49:05]
Her biggest failure and what she learned from it [54:52]
Where she’d go in Sub-Saharan Africa to learn and improve her business [56:35]
Two books that left an impression on her [58:15]
Her piece of actionable advice for aspiring African entrepreneurs [1:00:40]