28 May 2019
Planting the Seeds of Positive Growth
Mira Mehta (MBA 2014) drew on the resources of HBS to cofound Nigeria’s largest open-field tomato farmRe: Sophus Reinertby April White
Governor of Kaduna State Malam Nasir AHMAD El-Rufai (left) and Mira Mehta (right) meet with Nigerian government officials
(photo courtesy of Tomato Jos)
Mira Mehta (MBA 2014) didn’t set out to become a farmer in northern Nigeria, but today, the company she cofounded, Tomato Jos, operates the largest open-field tomato farm in the country.
For Mehta, the path to these 25 irrigated hectares, located 45 minutes outside Kaduna, Nigeria, began in 2008, when she was working on HIV issues in the country on behalf of the Clinton Foundation. That year, Nigerian farmers produced a glut of tomatoes. Mehta saw them everywhere, piled along the roadsides to dry—or rot—as prices for fresh tomatoes plummeted.
She came to HBS with an idea for addressing the problem she had witnessed: Nigeria needed a functional tomato processing plant. A for-profit social enterprise could turn the excess harvest into tomato paste—a staple in Nigerian cuisine that is currently imported—and into additional income for the country’s small farmers.
But Mehta didn’t know much about tomatoes. “Once I really committed to the idea, the first thing I did was use the HBS network,” she says. “I talked to everyone I could find who was even remotely associated with the tomato paste industry.” To her surprise, HBS faculty had written numerous cases on tomatoes. After reading one on the Morning Star Company, a California-based tomato processing firm, she contacted its president and founder, Chris Rufer, who offered her some advice: “Start with the farmer.” Rufer knew from experience that a tomato processing business can’t be successful if the farmers don’t have the tools to produce consistent tomato harvests at a reasonable cost.
In addition to tapping HBS’s active alumni network in Nigeria, Mehta reached out to the student-run Africa Business Club for advice. She also participated in the School’s New Venture Competition. In 2014, Tomato Jos won $25,000 as runner-up in the Social Enterprise category, giving Mehta the money and confidence she needed to launch.
In the fall of 2018, Tomato Jos farmers planted some 1.1 million tomato seeds in greenhouses and later transplanted them into the fields; the company also worked with more than 200 smallholder farmers to increase their tomato yields. Mehta is now anticipating the results of the company’s first full harvest, and she is fundraising for its future. If the farm can produce 30 tons of tomatoes per hectare at a cost of $124 per ton, Tomato Jos will be ready to expand its smallholder program and take the next step into tomato processing.
And Mehta herself has now become a case protagonist. First-year students in the course Business, Government, and the International Economy read the study written by Sophus Reinert, the Marvin Bower Associate Professor of Business Administration, which examines the challenges Mehta has faced as an entrepreneur in Africa. They also learn about her decision to continue to pursue her dream for Tomato Jos, even after she was offered a job at a major agricultural company. Mehta says, “Even if my business ends up failing—which I hope it doesn’t—if I am able to inspire one student a year to come back to the continent and start their own business, that, to me, is success.”
Class of MBA 2014, Section D