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Mira Mehta of Tomato Jos: Reasons Why Tomato Prices in Nigeria are High

Mira Mehta, the founder and CEO of Tomato Jos, a multi-million-dollar tomato processing facility in northern Nigeria, shared her best explanation as to why tomato prices in Nigeria are high.

The tomato queen, as she fondly calls herself, said, “I’m going to do it as definitively and comprehensively as I can, so that next year, when they’re high in June, I can point everyone back to this thread.”

“Tomatoes are seasonal. All over the world, open-field tomatoes are seasonal. They need cool nights, hot days, and a dry climate. In Nigeria, during the rainy season, it is hard to grow open-field tomatoes. Every year in June, the prices go up. Every year, guys. And every year, like clockwork, you get some tomato association crying to the media about tuta absoluta, saying that’s the reason yields are down. NO. Tuta can be controlled easily with chemicals that are available in Nigeria. We (touch wood) haven’t had tuta issues since 2016.”

“Those guys are just trying to make noise in hopes that they’ll get a government handout. Maybe it works. I don’t know. I don’t really care. Seasonality is such a big deal that we only run fresh fruit through our factory for approximately 70 days a year. During that time, we process some of the fruit directly into sachets and the rest into paste that we store for future use.”

“Seasonality means tomatoes do not like rain. You have to spend more time and more to get tomatoes to grow in the rain. See below: The numbers are different now due to inflation or devaluation, but the logic still holds. In the rainy season, you spend more money but get less fruit.”

Our farmers spend 1.5 million naira per hectare to get yields of 40–50 MT/ha. Cost: 33 N/KG In the rainy season, you’d need to spend more (maybe 1.8–2 million per hectare if you want to stake fruits and use more antifungals), and you’d be very lucky to get 10 MT/ha. Cost: 190 N/KG

“This means there are fewer fruits in circulation than in the dry season, and scarcity drives higher prices. Also, those tomatoes that are available are more expensive for farmers to grow, so that puts even more pressure on the price.”

She stated another factor: @borie_nlas, partner and co-founder of Poster Villam’s data-driven agri-business, has a lovely explanation of the cost of moving tomatoes from north to south, which also has a seasonality element.

“During the rainy season, trucks move more slowly and are more expensive, and higher humidity does more damage to the fruits in transit. So if you believe me now when I say that tomato prices ALWAYS increase in the rainy season and Nigerians ALWAYS freak out about this every June, let’s move on to talk about why or whether this season is actually worse than previous seasons. This part is going to be speculative.”

Folks are talking about security a lot, and that could be a factor. I don’t want to belittle the security issues across the whole of Nigeria (please, let’s not make this a north-south thing; it’s a mess everywhere). BUT. I think it has more to do with inflation. Fertilizer has become stupidly expensive lately, and I believe this probably led fewer farmers to plant dry-season crops and/or farmers to farm on smaller plot sizes. If Nigeria were a serious country, they’d have the state ADPs go out and measure the acreage of each major crop planted. The USDA does this for corn, soy, wheat, and other crops, and it’s publicly available information. But we all know Nigeria is allergic to collecting and sharing real data, she added.

“I agree 100% with this. Input costs are up, loans don’t make sense, and food production is probably down across most crops. Though we can’t know for sure because we don’t measure stuff like that here,.”

“The final (also speculative) reason I think tomato prices are especially high this year is climate-related. From our own experience, Tomato Jos farmers had our worst yields in four years this year, despite planting early, which usually guarantees a higher yield. We saw the hottest temperatures we have ever seen in Kaduna in December. The harmattan didn’t come till January, and it wasn’t as cold as it usually is. At least for us, we didn’t compensate for this with increased irritation, so our farmers’ plants experienced high stress and it is bad for yields. So if fewer farmers planted tomatoes on smaller plots of land, facing poor weather and massive inflation during the season, this would naturally put more pressure on the cost of a product that already experiences price volatility via seasonality.”

“We should see tomato prices coming down a little towards August (see below), but the impact of inflation is real and long-lasting.”

@Hallewonder asked How long does it take for the price to go down? She replied, It’ll come down a little bit towards the end of the summer. If you live in Lagos, by August, you’ll start to see fresh tomatoes coming out of Kwara State. There’s a group of farmers there who actually do the hard work of rainy-season open-farm tomato cultivation. God bless them.

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