We’re Talking About Baskets

Well folks, the first harvest has come and gone.  Our little tomatoes survived the hot March days, battled against hungry fruit worms, and eventually made their ways into the stomachs of hungry Nigerians. 

As we reported in our last blog post, we were quite happy to take the money and run, but we now find ourselves facing a new challenge.  We are still a few weeks away from producing our first batch of packaged tomato paste, but we’re fresh out of tomatoes!  Even though the main season for tomatoes has passed, we still want to produce a small quantity of paste so that we can get regulatory approval to sell our product, test the capacity of our processing facility, and – of course – meet our fulfillments for our Kickstarter backers. Fortunately, this tomato challenge falls into the “we can manage it” category.  In fact, going out to search for tomatoes has given us a great excuse to talk to farmers who may want to grow for us next season. 

This past week, #TeamTomatoJos spoke with three different farmer cooperatives based in various parts of Kaduna State, where our processing facility is located.  Things started off smoothly: we talked about the day and time of delivery, when we would be ready to start buying, and what our expectations were around the quality of the product.  But as we delved deeper and deeper into the conversation, it became clear that pricing was going to be an issue.  Not that we couldn’t find the right price, but we didn’t even have the same way of thinking about the price.  We looked each farmer group in the eye and asked, “What are we talking about?”

It turns out we’re talking about baskets.  Like most other crops traded in Nigeria, tomatoes are sold by volume – not by weight – and the standard measure is the basket.  However, “standard” is a pretty loose term.  There are baskets, and then there are baskets.  Since they are all hand-woven, no two are exactly alike. This has major implications in the marketplace.  Farmers naturally want to sell their tomatoes in smaller baskets, and buyers want to purchase them in larger baskets. Ultimately, #TeamTomatoJos believes it will be more fair to both the buyers and the sellers to pay by weight.  That way, the farmers will be adequately compensated for their harvest, and we will get exactly as many tomatoes as we need: no more, no less.  So how do we move away from these baskets to a standardized system?


Enter The Crate

Nigeria has a burgeoning plastics industry, and there are now multiple companies in Lagos that manufacture stackable plastic crates made specifically to transport produce.  Crates have many virtues: ventilation on the sides increases airflow, which helps keep produce fresh; the easily cleanable plastic material reduces the risk of spreading mold and bacteria; and fewer tomatoes are crushed because the crates are relatively shallow compared to baskets. These crates are also all the same size and weight. Buying and selling tomatoes in crates drastically increases the standardization, since each crate is made to hold 25kg of produce.  #TeamTomatoJos is (clearly!) a strong proponent of the crates, and we are actively working with an NGO partner called GEMS4 to increase the use of crates in Nigerian markets.

Of course, the crates don’t hold exactly 25kg either – the weight depends on how full the farmer fills them, as well as the size and density of the produce inside.  So we still need to use a scale to figure out how much produce we’re actually buying.  And we still need a scale to translate the price from baskets to kilograms.  So how exactly does one go about making this shift?

1. Ask a farmer with whom you want to do business if you may meet him or her in the market.  This is relatively easy, though sometimes actually finding the physical location of the market can be a challenge since most rural areas are described by landmarks rather than road signs… 

2. Bring a “weigh scale” to the market.  The only time #TeamTomatoJos has ever come across a scale in the market is when buying nails, which, curiously, are sold by the “lap” – Nigerian slang for a pound (lb).  We haven’t seen scales used in any other areas in the market, which is why we bring our own.

3. In the presence of the farmer, weigh as many baskets of tomatoes as you can.  The more baskets you weigh, the more the farmer will see just how much variation there is in the actual amount of tomatoes sold, even though the price per basket is constant.  Last week, we found the following basket weights at markets in Birniyero and Ikara, two towns in Kaduna State:

·      61 kilograms

·      66 kilograms

·      61 kilograms

·      43 kilograms

·      57 kilograms

·      41 kilograms

·      40 kilograms

·      45 kilograms

4. Agree with the farmer on an average basket weight that you will both be comfortable using. This can be quite difficult given the wide range in basket sizes and the farmers’ general discomfort with change.  It’s important to take as much time as the farmer needs to get comfortable with the idea of using an average weight, even though some baskets may be larger and others may be smaller than that average. 

5. On the day that you are buying tomatoes from the farmer, find out the market price per basket. This is relatively straight forward, though the buyer and the farmer should agree on which market price to use, as well as the time of day – “farm gate” prices tend to be lower than “market” prices, and tomatoes sold later in the day are worth less than tomatoes sold first thing in the morning.

6. Divide the market price by the average basket weight that you have already agreed upon. This will give you a “per kilogram” price.  For example, if we have agreed with the farmer that the average basket weight is 52 kg and the basket price that day is 2,000 naira, our price per kilogram will be 2,000 / 52 = 38.46 naira

7. Determine the weight of the tomatoes that the farmer has delivered to you.  Essentially, this involves weighing every crate full of tomatoes upon delivery, and then subtracting the weight of the crates from the “gross weight” to find the “net weight” of the tomatoes.

8. Pay up! Multiply the price per kilogram by the net weight to determine what you owe the farmer.  For example, if the net weight of the farmer’s delivery is 1,000 kilograms, the farmer would receive 1,000 * 38.46 = 38,460 for the delivery.

This all sounds well and good in practice, but #TeamTomatoJos knows that we will need to hold the farmers’ hands at every step to make sure that they understand and are comfortable with this new way of doing business.  Next month, when we (finally!) get our processing facility up and running, we’ll let you all know what happens when we try to execute this new plan.

Be sure to follow #TeamTomatoJos on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for more updates in between our blog posts!