Tomato paste, like rice, is a prized staple in Nigeria's culinary repertoire.
A vital ingredient in meat stews, soups, homemade sauces and rice dishes, tomato accounts for nearly one fifth of Nigeria's vegetable consumption.
Nigeria is Africa's second largest producer of fresh tomatoes with an annual production of 2.3m tonnes, according to a 2018 report by PwC. Paradoxically, the report also found that the West African nation is the continent's third largest importer of tomato paste, spending about $360m per year on imports between 2016 and 2017. As such, boosting domestic tomato production has been an important element in the Buhari government's policy of making the country less dependent on food imports.
Some of the country's conglomerates believe they can fill this supply gap. Dangote Group, headed by Africa's richest man, Aliko Dangote, is one of the big players that have jumped into the fray. In March 2016, it invested $20m to start a tomato-processing plant on the outskirts of the northern city of Kano.
The plant, with an installed capacity capable of producing 1,200 tonnes of tomato paste daily, was touted as a game changer. But after engaging over 5,000 farmers whose output would be purchased after harvest, the plant shut in 2017, re-opened in early 2019 and struggled until it became fully operational in February this year.
Within the same period, Lagos-based food manufacturer Erisco Foods, which had opened a tomato paste plant in Lagos in February 2016, also closed its plant in November that year due to a shortage of the dollars it needed to import machine spare parts and raw materials after Nigeria slumped into a recession.
At the heart of the problem is the lack of a steady, unhampered supply of raw tomatoes. Small- and medium-scale farmers, who account for 90% of domestic production, are grappling not only with a lack of quality seeds and fertiliser but also poor yields, pests and diseases and staggering post-harvest losses due to poor storage and transportation infrastructure. In mid-2016 an invasion of tomato-leaf eating moths (Tuta absoluta) wiped out tomato farms in several northern states, the hotspot for tomato production. Prices went up, and production plants, including Dangote's, struggled as supply dropped radically.
Between 2006 and 2016, tomato yields averaged 5.47 tonnes per hectare, compared to the global average of 38.1 tonnes per hectare, according to PwC.
Poor yields often mean farmers are...