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Although Nigeria leads Africa in oil exports, two recent Harvard graduates are trying to ramp up the West African country’s production of a different natural resource—tomato paste.
“It was a pipe dream I’ve had since 2008,” said Mira A. Mehta, a Business School graduate who co-founded the startup “Tomato Jos” with School of Public Health alumnus Shane F. Kiernan earlier this year. The company, a for-profit social enterprise, aims to build up a tomato paste industry in Nigeria by educating local tomato farmers about agricultural techniques and supplying them with seeds and fertilizers. The name Tomato Jos itself means “cute girl” in Nigerian slang, a play on the fact that the tomatoes in the Nigerian city Jos are known to be very sweet and juicy.
Mehta said the inspiration for the startup came from the four years she spent living in Nigeria before attending HBS. “We would pass miles and miles of tomato fields, and the tomatoes were just rotting on the side of the road,” Mehta said. “It’s a striking image.”
According to Mehta, tomatoes are a staple in many Nigerian dishes, but the poor quality of locally grown crops, combined with a weak transportation infrastructure, causes the country to import almost $500 million in tomato paste every year.
To help reverse this trend, Mehta and Kiernan designed their startup with a business model that oversees tomato paste production from seed to shelf. After ensuring that local farmers produce a high-quality crop, Mehta said, Tomato Jos will manage transportation of the tomatoes to local factories where they can then be processed into paste and packaged under the Tomato Jos brand.
Mehta began the research that informed this business model during her last year at the Business School, and in January 2014, she teamed up with Kiernan, whom she first met while living in Africa.
“I knew that this opportunity could really have a transformational impact on the lives of smallholder farmers in Nigeria,” Kiernan wrote in an email. “From my experience it is trade and not aid that ultimately leads to the greatest positive social impact.”
After Tomato Jos placed as runner-up in the 2014 Harvard Business School New Venture Competition, it was accepted into the Harvard Innovation Lab’s Venture Incubation Program. Then, Mehta and Kiernan spent the summer in Nigeria, doing groundwork to prepare for the startup’s launch.
“There are so many challenges to operate a startup, but it is particularly unique to have your operations outside of the country,” said Matthew C. Guidarelli, an assistant director at the i-Lab who served as a mentor for the Tomato Jos team. “You have to understand the political landscape, the local customs and behaviors, and the market.”
Currently, Kiernan is back in Nigeria, breaking ground on a greenhouse and assembling a group of small farmers to join the trial, set to start in a few weeks. Mehta, who is currently fundraising for the startup in the U.S., said that the team may someday consider expanding beyond tomatoes once their model has gained traction.
“I feel really strongly about Mira and Shane’s ability to realize the results they want,” Guidarelli said. “There is a lot of potential for Tomato Jos to not only have an impact in Nigeria, but create a model for other social enterprises to learn from.”
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