NKIRU TOMATO: From Mobil engineer to vegetable farmer

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From Oluwatoyin Akinola

With an estimated 170 million people currently, and projected by the United Nations in 2015 to be about 400million in 2050, Nigeria no doubt is in a good place for the most populous countries award (if there’s anything like that)!
However, food security has not caught up with the growing population of the most populous country in Africa. Thus the country still relies heavily on importation of food commodities, grains and vegetables alike.
While insiders say there is more hype than action from government, many have decided to ask what ‘they can do for their country rather than what the country can do for them’. One of such is small scale farmer Nkiru Okparaeke, fondly called ‘Nkiru Tomato’. Coming from a highly successful career as an Instrumentation Engineer, she decided to dive into the ‘murky waters of agriculture in Nigeria’ producing peppers and tomatoes. Rolling up her sleeves and throwing away the heels, she decided to start a vegetable farm using greenhouse technology which is relatively novel to the Nigerian Agricultural landscape with her long-time friend and equally successful professional, Eme Tony Uzoebo.
Sunday Sun recently caught up with ‘Nkiru Tomato’ at their Enviro-Gro Farms tucked away in Epe in Lagos State, where she shared the joys, pains and hopes of doing what she does.
There is demand, no doubt…
For instance someone is asking for 1.5 tonnes of tomatoes. If I sign on, I’ll have to supply him his tomato whether I produce or not. So we’re trying to do some dry runs with some tomato species to see if they can thrive here. We’re hoping to set up a tomato processing plant, but the challenge we’re having is getting species that will do well here.
We’ve done like eight species of tomatoes but we just keep having challenges with them. Pepper thrives better than tomatoes here because it is humid here unlike in Jos.
Like I always say, ‘Tomato is a woman, Pepper is a man’. We handle tomato like we’re handling babies. The peppers we have are indeterminate, you can keep harvesting them for six months. So when we pluck, it grows back. But with the tomato, immediately we harvest, the plant starts dying by the next day.
Tomato is the ‘Queen of Vegetables’. We brought in some species from Kenya, they were massive but here they came out like baby tomatoes. The environment there is cool. They grow roses there, roses only grow in cool environments. Kenya is part of the Flower council, 30 percent of flowers in Europe come from there.
The humidity here doesn’t help. And when it rains, it also brings it’s issues of bacteria and fungus. My Agronomist from Kenya has been growing pepper and tomatoes in Kenya for about 25 years, when he saw how those species fared, he was bewildered.
 Everyday is a new challenge here…
It keeps us going and alive. When we have the successes, it keeps us excited, we celebrate. When people ask about my successes, I tell them if a staff doesn’t quit in a week, it’s a success, if you plant a hundred and ninety survives, you get excited. Success in agriculture has to be defined differently from elsewhere. If you define it by the monetary returns you would quit fast. Some seeds are so small, you need a magnifying glass to look at them, yet they produce something really big, that’s exciting. It’s the next thing to playing to God.
Green House farming, a novel farming practice in Nigeria
There are other green farms, I know of one in Jos, but I learnt the place shut down. Farm fresh has green houses as well but they are not operating now because the Dutch manager left. And that’s why I keep saying Joshua (my expatriate agronomist) is ‘my single point of failure’.
We have our control room, the machine that mixes the chemical is here, it mixes and sends to the plants.
We use generator to power this place. We will use solar panels over time. We couldn’t do that as we started off because of the cost, we just wanted to get going. Having a generator is cheaper for us now. In the long term we will.
We have the nursery, where the seeds are the weakest, they are infants. So if we don’t manage them well, we’ll lose them. When the nursery is full, we’re having about 11,000 seeds. And when the greenhouse is full, we can have about 16,000/18,000 plants. So we always have plants in the nursery, because the plants keep dying and we keep replacing.
The plants stay in the nursery for four weeks, then we transplant them to where they’ll stay till harvest.
We have two types of seeds, determinate and indeterminate. Determinate means that when they start fruiting, after one or two harvests, they won’t produce anymore. So, we take them off. Indeterminate means they can continue to grow and grow fruits after the initial fruiting, for another six months or a year. As you pluck, new seeds come out.
For the traditional, local species, when they are harvested, they are taken off. It takes a special skill to maintain them longer.
If we didn’t have the specialised skill, we would be using the determinate ones. Because harvesting is like you created a wound when you opened up the plant. So, what we normally do is to spray after harvesting. If we don’t, we’ve opened that place for diseases to come in.
We tie the peppers, so when they start fruiting, the weight won’t make the plants tilt and bend to the ground. They keep growing up, so we use the ropes to steady them.
Using non-soil medium…
We use slow release fertiliser, irrigation comes from the pipes but they could become blocked at times, so the fertiliser compensates for any mishaps. The plants are not planted in soil. I use a non-soil medium called ‘coco peats’, gotten from the husk of the coconut. It is on these that the plants grow. They are here till they fruit. They are not going anywhere again, it’s from nursery to here. From planting to harvesting, takes about 75 days. By 75 days, they are green. If you want them to turn to the colour they are, then you give another 15 days. So by 90 days, they are ready for the kitchen. They all start off as green, so if I want to sell as green, then I can by the 75th day.
Often some get diseased, so, we replace such with plants from the nursery. After harvesting, we sterilise the coco peats. We harvest twice a week, Monday and Thursday.
We have the Habanero, which is indigenous to Africa, they can be planted on soil. They don’t have issues like these other ones. However, those that plant in soil in green houses, burn the soil first to kill all the micro-organisms. But we can’t be going through all that stress now, so we’d rather use coco peats.
Coco peats is an inert material, meaning it’s free, has nothing in it, the soil on the other hand has microbes in it. Coco peats are used in Europe and the U.S., they also use rock and Perlites, they don’t grow on soil.
We have fans cooling up the place. In April, we get temperatures as high as 70 degree centigrade, it can be so hot. The only thing that helps at such times are the cooling fans.
When going in you wash hands and disinfect your feet, in order to minimise contamination just like when you’re going into a poultry farm.
Using Coco peats
We got our first sets of coco peats from India but we’re getting them here now and we’re setting up to manufacture them here. At the moment, we’re manufacturing for our own use. Presently we don’t have the machinery, so we’re able to fabricate small amounts.
From Exxon Mobil to the Farm
People often ask me how or why I got into farming coming from a very sophisticated and professional background. My answer to that question my sister is, if I knew what I know now, I would have left this farming for others.
I used to work for Exxon Mobil, I left for Business School in Canada and my partner Eme Tony-Uzoebo  left for Harvard. I was an Instrumentation Engineer in Mobil, so I worked on projects, in Singapore, France, US, I moved around a lot. My first degree was in Engineering from the University of Port Harcourt. My partner also studied Accounting from the same school, we grew up together in Enugu, we’ve been friends for a while. So we were thinking of what we could do. Then she had the priviledge of internship at IFC, International Finance Corporation, the private arm of the World Bank. She stumbled on the data for vegetable production, the demand and actual production. And a lot of shops were now having issues importing vegetable because of our exchange rate.
Shop Rite did a lot of that. We had looked at poultry, fish farming, so we settled for vegetable farming, because at the time a lot of shops were coming up, and they needed the products. Then the dollar moved against the shops when we started, they couldn’t import. So we started producing and because of the quality of our products, we can’t even meet up with demand.
We’re like a little research farm
We keep trying different seeds. We’ve found some that do well here, and some don’t. We’re like a little research farm, we keep looking for varieties that can give us higher yields.
Initially, we were more interested in just tomatoes. When we went round and did our market survey, we saw how the cartels in the markets dealt with farmers, we knew we couldn’t take our products to Mile 12(Lagos).
We spend about three month growing our products and if we go to the market, we can’t sell directly but through the middlemen who fix the price.
So having found out the high barrier to entry and the high demand as well, we just opted to do not just tomatoes but also pepper. We consume a lot of tomatoes and peppers in the country. SPAR alone moves about 10 tonnes of tomatoes a week. Imagine if we go into processing? Now we’re trying out some varieties to find out the ones we can use for processing, because that’s the next phase for us, after fresh produce.

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We could produce a tonne in a week…
Our capacity here if green house is full, we could be doing about a tonne a week, but it’s never really full (a tonne is 1,000kilos), because we have to stagger production. If we plant everything the same time, that means we’ll supply the same time and for the next three months we won’t be able to supply anybody anything. So, if you’d noticed, our plants are in different stages, that’s one way to ensure the shops get products from us every week. It’s better for their planning.
When we did our market survey, it was one of the things the shops complained about, that farmers supply today and for the next three months they don’t.
From April to August tomatoes become very scarce and expensive. That’s because that is the rainy season and tomatoes don’t like the rain. So it’s challenging growing it during this period and most of the tomatoes grown in Nigeria is open field.
The only way we can arrest that situation is for us to start growing tomatoes during the rainy season in closures like these (greenhouses) to make up. And you know most of the tomatoes are brought in from the north to the south.
Apart from that, what is the level of education of these farmers, they probably don’t know about further scheduling. What they know is to plant everything at once, instead of scheduling their planting. So it happens that when all the farmers’ plant at the same time, there’s a glut and price falls and they lose money. If government can come in with little education, it can help. Talk to them, divide their land, plant different things at the same time, so that there’ll be constant supply and there won’t be a glut such that they are forced to bring down their prices.
Always been exposed to farming…
I was on the board of Igwe farms, supporting them not actually farming. However, I’ve always been exposed to farming. My mum farmed, she still does, she has her farm at 70plus, and my father complains.
But I tell people, what I do now is not my mother’s type of farming. In those days after school, she’ll whisk us off to the village to farm. We’ll plant cassava, some will harvest. I can make garri, can do all the process, peeling, sieving, frying, all the works! I can make Palm oil, there’ basically no part of farming I didn’t grow up doing, but of course I didn’t enjoy it because it was backbreaking.
I grew up in Enugu and it’s a big farming state. My father was a top civil servant and we lived in the government reserved area in those sturdy, fancy (at the time) Ikoyi type of houses that the colonialists built. Then, when I went to people’s houses, I found flowers there but my mother had turned every little space around our own house into farm. Instead of flowers, we had yams, we had farm and then I used to feel very embarrassed. As far, as my mother was concerned, any free land space should be for farming. If you talked about flowers, so far one could put hedge, that was fine by her. Any regular space like lawn became a farm, or a yam mart.
Putting a figure to our project…
Getting this project off, I may not readily be able to put a figure to it, in terms of the basics, logistics, I could say about a hundred million went into that. Everything we use, we imported.
The way we can surmount this challenge of high cost now is if companies can start fabricating all these inputs here. All the green houses you see in Nigeria are practically imported. However, we’re trying our hands on ‘Reverse Engineering’ with a company, to produce some of these inputs here. Reverse Engineering is copying the technology behind a product and replicating here, building the product from scratch.
In five, ten years…
So in five, ten years, we should be talking about 50-100 hectares of land for our tomato farm and processing plant. So, we can have eight hectares of the green house, then the 50-100 open field for tomatoes that we’ll be processing. Presently, we’re working with just about half a hectare. We also hope to set up a ranch, and ultimately the whole agricultural production chain.
You should be sure this is what you really want…
For entrepreneurs looking into a venture like this, you have to make sure this is really what you want to do, don’t get carried away with the slogan that, ‘Agriculture is the next big thing’. Be sure this is really what you want to do. Visit farms and find out what’s happening there, talk to owners.
Also, you don’t necessarily have to farm, there’s a lot of links in the value chain, find out which one you can plug into, not everyone has to do backward integration. You can decide you want to be an uptaker, buying from those who are producing, helping them to sell. You can decide to run a logistics company, so everyone knows that on a particular day, you bring your vehicle to pick up produce to the people who need it and you get paid. Now, everyone is doing everything under one roof. You’re the farmer (supplier), you’re doing the logistics, doing everything. In developed countries, there are people just dedicated to farming logistics. So the farmer farms, someone picks it up and takes it to sell, so he can concentrate on his farming, which is just one link of the value chain.
So, make sure this is really what you want to do. Run your numbers well, and talk to those who are in the business.
Our pains, our joys, our hopes…
The pains are plenty. One of the joys is that you grow something, enter a shop, and find your produce. We’re doing import substitution, those things that were previously imported are now coming from farms like ours. In our little way, we’re saving the Nigerian economy. The people working here have the benefit of employment. They could be unemployed. These are the joys we have.
On our pains, the dollar is hitting all of us. The fertilizers we use are imported, the seeds are imported. The fertilizer that  I previously bought for N13,000 now cost me about  N32,000. How much am I going to sell my peppers? The shops are not increasing prices because they are trying to sell off with low prices, they don’t want to keep stock for too long. We sell in kilos to them but I can’t tell you how much I sell to them.
Our hopes…  ‘Mr. Joshua, what’s our hopes (asking the farm’s expatriate agronomist)?’ Our hope is that the seed companies will take Nigeria seriously and start producing seeds for our environment.There are multibillion dollar companies that all they do is produce seeds, they do the research and develop seeds.  Companies like Monsanto, Wensman, Syngenta etc. So our hope is that they’ll begin to see West Africa, Nigeria as a viable market that they can develop seeds for, setting up multiplication farms for us, which means they have taken into cognisance our peculiar diseases and produced seeds that are protected or immuned to these diseases, so that we can be using less chemicals and the survival rates of the plants becoming higher.
Government must put its money where it’s mouth is…
If government can really put its money where its mouth is, it’ll really go a long way. You read in the papers, government is supporting agriculture but ask how many farmers have actually accessed facilities from Bank of Agric? It’s just in the papers that they are encouraging farmers, but when the real sector people like me apply, it’s difficult. The Bank of Industry MD was here and I told him if it’s difficult for a woman like me who is educated and connected to access loan, then how will the village woman fare?

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What really goes on.
The experience is that the risk for the loan lies with the bank, so your commercial bank applies on your behalf, so if you default, your bank pays. So the bank treats it like a commercial loan giving you conditions. They ask you for a collateral, and how much collateral does a farmer have? The only collateral he has is his land, and most times the land is not registered because the cost of registering the land will rather be spent on inputs into the farm. A good farmer will not put money on something that will not yield him money. Having C of O does not yield me instant money, buying seed and fertilizer would. And many of these farmers are small holders, village land passed from father to son.
In trying to claim they are helping, they have put it in such a way that people can’t access the loans. It’s people like Dangote that can readily access the money. So the government should not just be talking, if they really want to make a change in agriculture. They should liberalise the process, remove conditions for farmers to access loans. They should stop telling the commercial banks to carry the risks. For instance, a bank was asking me if I have property in Banana Island. If I did I wouldn’t be going to the bank in the first place. So far, we’ve not gotten any loan. My partner and I have tried to in the last one year, courting various banks by opening accounts in them, nothing so far. We’ve liquidated all we have to keep this place running in the last two years that we started.

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