In response to requests from our readers, and since these days we all seem to embrace the concept of oversharing, #TeamTomatoJos has decided to get personal. This blog is our first official founders update – we’ll keep them coming on a quarterly basis until you tell us to stop
We started blogging at the end of July as a way for us to share our story with friends, family, partners and fans as we bring Tomato Jos to life. Over the past 11 entries, we’ve written about everything from weeds to weddings, and taxis to tractors. It has been a remarkable journey to undertake.
In today’s blog we want to share in a frank way what our goals are, where we’re making progress, and where we still have work to do. We look up to Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who both write extremely candid annual letters, and we hope to be equally as honest with you.
This past May, we went from being full-time students to being full-time tomato entrepreneurs, diving headfirst into the world of global agriculture. We evaluated 16 different locations across Ghana and Nigeria in order to find the right place to set up our farming operations. And now that we’ve finalized our location, we’re facing the biggest challenge yet: actually getting started.
As the rainy season comes to a close in Nigeria, farmers are getting ready to plant tomatoes, and so are we. But because we want to implement some of the best practices that we learned about in California, like growing seedlings in a greenhouse and using drip irrigation, it’s going to take us a month longer than anticipated to get fully underway.
Our first order of business is to build a greenhouse where our seedlings can grow in a controlled environment before being transplanted to the fields. And while the seedlings are growing, there’s work to do in the fields, too. Over the coming month, we need to clear the fields of overgrowth, level the land, install drip irrigation, and prepare the beds. At times, the sheer volume of work seems overwhelming, but we are confident that we can build the right team of dedicated and passionate people who share our vision and who will help get the work done.
We are guided by the success of other models for smallholder farmer engagement – we draw inspiration and ideas from Doreo Partners in Nigeria and the One Acre Fund in Kenya, both of whom deliver sustainable high-impact solutions to improve farmer productivity and increase their annual income. Neither of these solutions were built in a day – they were launched after months or even years of research, with careful considerations made about the specific contexts in which they would operate. The challenge for Tomato Jos is that solutions for smallholder tomato farmers in particular have never been widely trialed in Nigeria, so we need to build a new engagement model from the ground up.
We have met with successful social agribusinesses like Moringa Connect and Lafaza to learn more about the way they work with smallholders, but ultimately we will have to create a solution that suits the unique characteristics of Nasarawa state and the farmers who live there. This means that our direct impact on smallholder farmers will be limited in the first year. Over the course of the coming growing season, as we develop our agricultural capabilities, we will simultaneously work on our engagement and education model for smallholders. We will identify a small group of motivated and capable farmers, and work with them in a partnership to design a solution that is relevant to tomato farmers, scalable across the region, and truly able to make a transformative impact.
We are fortunate to have many partners on the ground to help us navigate this first growing season – the Federal Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development in particular has been extremely supportive, helping us to refine our model and putting us in touch with various organizations to source seeds, drip irrigation lines, and other important items that we need to run the farm. However, one challenge we have faced recently has to do with seeds. We wanted to test many different seeds on our model farm to determine which ones would work best in Nigeria, but very few companies have focused on bringing improved, hybrid tomato seeds into the country through legal channels. Luckily, we found Syngenta, who are working across Nigeria with farmers to increase productivity and the quality of farmers' produce. Though our trials this season will have fewer varieties that we had hoped, we are committed to operating our company with integrity and honesty across every front.
The quarter ahead
Executing the #TeamTomatoJos vision is hard, and it involves a considerable amount of risk. Some of these risks will pay off and some won’t. Regardless, we will learn a lot. In the months ahead, our learning will increase exponentially as we build out our team, establish the nursery, prepare the fields, design our trials begin planting, and even launch a Kickstarter campaign (more to come on that soon)! There will be highs and lows, wins and losses – we look forward to sharing all of them with you.