Some people are born salesmen. They know their product, they know their market, they have the gift of gab, and they don’t take no for an answer. Last month, the first of our tomatoes became ripe and ready to eat before our processing equipment was fully up and running, so #TeamTomatoJos put our fresh market selling skills to the test – and boy was it an interesting experience…
Even before we started selling, we knew we’d be playing in a buyers’ market. Discussions with smallholder farmers had opened our eyes to the tricks that wholesale buyers employ when purchasing tomatoes. They reach into a basket of tomatoes and crush a few before bringing them out to the surface, claiming that the farmers have “disguised” low-quality goods by putting their best tomatoes on top. They collude with their competitors to force the price down. They wait until the tomatoes have deteriorated and the seller is desperate before making a fire-sale offer. They say they want seven baskets, but then only buy five. The list goes on.
With this knowledge in mind, #TeamTomatoJos approached the fresh market with caution. After a few test runs in small markets near our farm and a lot of reconnaissance to learn where, when and how the buyers made their purchases, we were ready to play the game. And this is what we’ve learned!
Step 1: Contact the Buyer
Tomatoes last longer when they’re still on the vine, so it’s important to line up your buyers well before harvesting any fruit. This typically means calling up potential buyers a day in advance to find out what their needs are and when they would want the tomatoes. Smaller towns and villages don’t hold market every day – in Panda, for example, the closest village to our nucleus farm, every fourth day is a market day. Having potential buyers in a few different markets helps build flexibility into the sales operations. Having “ears” in the larger markets will also help ensure that you’re getting a fair price for your produce, though these relationships take time to cultivate. Additionally, although we deal in metric tons and kilograms when we talk about tomatoes for paste, the fresh markets still buy and sell based on volumetric measures: namely, the basket.
Step 2: Harvest and Sort
#TeamTomatoJos prefers to pick our produce in the morning, before the sun gets too hot. And if we have a lot to sell, it’s all hands on deck! Our security guards keep their slingshots close at hand in case any stray pigs wander onto the farm, but they’ve been known to roll up their sleeves and join the rest of us to get the harvesting done quickly so we can get our product to the market. We use medical gloves to protect our hands when we’re harvesting, and drop the tomatoes into plastic buckets that we fill up and bring to the edge of the field. We measure and weigh everything that comes out of the fields, even if we can’t sell it – so tomatoes with worms or “blossom end rot” (a deficiency cased by insufficient calcium or irregular watering) have to be separated from the higher quality fruits once they’ve been picked.
The lower grade tomatoes can often be sold to women who run local restaurants. These buyers don’t care about the outer appearance or the “mushiness” factor of the fruits since they will quickly be cooked into red stew.
Step 3: Negotiate
Even though you may have agreed on a price and a volume with the buyer beforehand, you can never be 100% sure that the sale will go smoothly. Sometimes messages get lost in translation when a buyer sends someone else on her behalf, and that someone wants a cut of the deal. Changes in the weather can also affect the volume that someone wants to buy – since most of these tomatoes are resold in the open market, a big downpour is bad for business!
#TeamTomatoJos has cultivated a set of buyers who come to our farm for their tomatoes. This makes things much easier for us, since the fresh market is not really where we want to spend our time and energy. We may receive slightly lower prices than we would if we were selling in the bigger markets outside Abuja, but it still beats the opportunity cost of tying up our Hilux Amanda for a “side mission,” not to mention the actual cost of the fuel itself!
Step 4: Take the Money and Run!
Steve Miller knew what he was writing about – once you’ve got the money in your hand (and you’ve made sure it’s complete), don’t look back! Tomatoes are fragile as we know, and they deteriorate rapidly once they have been picked. As anxious as we may be to offload our tomatoes onto a wholesale buyer, we know that those same people turn around and become sellers themselves, pretty much immediately. It’s in everyone’s best interest to make the sales process smooth, fast, and repeatable. After all, buyers want a regular supply as much as farers want consistent customers!
#TeamTomatoJos values the lessons we have learned from making fresh market sales, and we are eager to get our processing facility up and running so we can start learning about selling consumer packaged goods, too! Stay tuned as the journey continues…