Inspired by tomatoes!
As I enter the somewhat daunting world of online marketing I think back over my traditional offline career and try and consider what did I learn; what did I achieve; and is there relevance there that might be of help as I plot new avenues in life?
From 2010 until last year I was Managing Director of the Nigerian subsidiary of a UK owned multinational into agriculture and other sectors. Yes, like many expat roles it was well paid and exciting job. But did I achieve anything meaningful and if the answer to that is YES - is there any learning from it that can help me and others like me embarking upon a total new adventure of owning and hopefully succeeding in this new challenge to successfully build my own online business? Good question I think and one I guess most of us "newbies" contemplate. That is what I achieved and learned from the past - does it have relevance and can it inspire for the future?
So permit me to share my "tomato story"!
Nigeria is a fascinating country. Already 180 million people live there and by 2035 its population will exceed that of the USA. In fact by 2050, and current demographic rates of growth it will become the second most populated country on earth!
But it has a huge number of issues and challenges - not least the fact for a myriad of reasons it simply fails to feed itself.
Every Nigeria every day eats tomatoes in one form or another, up to 3 times a day. As well as consuming fresh they add to their soups and stews. No Nigerian meal is complete without its tomatoes. Yet despite vast tracts of fertile land; an abundance of water and relatively low cost labour it is appalling inefficient in growing tomatoes sufficient to meet its own domestic demand, let alone create exportable surplus and earn valuable export earnings.
The overall domestic demand is upwards of 2 million metric tonnes per annum. Yet Nigeria cultivated only 1.5 million tonnes, all of it mostly in open field cultivation methods, and from which upwards of 50% was lost even before what little was produced actually reached the table from the farm due to poor distribution and packaging. The average yield then was roughly only 6 tonnes per hectare, near the lowest of any in the world. Most of the production was concentrated up North, generally in the hands of subsistence level farmers, but the vast majority of the consumption occurred in the teeming heavily populated growing middle class cities of the South, East & West. Most folk were actually sourcing their tomatoes out of rusty cans of processed tomato products made in China.
This paradox fascinated me. A high demand market producing a fraction of its needs and thus resorting to spending rapidly diminishing foreign exchange reserves on importing a basic stable common within their daily diet.
What if I could help overcome this problem? What was the real problem? Were there solutions? If there were solutions could they be implemented?
To cut a long story short the answers lay in empowering young high energy entreprenuers with the technology, tools, learning and guidance.
Tomatoes are fickle plants. To flourish they need to be of a certain type. They need just the right amount of water at just the right time. They need to be protected from pests & disease. They need to be grown in a secure protected environment if commercial yields can be cultivated. I often said the tomato is like a child. You gotta protect it; nurture them; love them - and then they will grow up just fine and dandy!
And like any crop - the nearer they are grown to the point of consumption the less challenges exist in terms of distribution.
So the first thing we did was stop growing in open fields - we grew only within protected greenhouses. Secondly we added drip irrigation within that environment. Next we ensured the growth medium - the soil - was clean and isolated from disease prevalent in untreated soils. We also introduced high yield varieties with proven resistance to pests & disease. But ... most important ... we held the hands of young new growers - we trained them; we mentored them; we guided them every day of the growing cycle.
The rest, as they say "is history"!Today, six years later we built a network of 4,000 new growers each equipped with tomato greenhouses coupled with all the tools, inputs, training and mentoring necessary for them to be successful. We did so all over the South, East & Western regions, close to the points of consumption.
Results? The average yield per hectare in these greenhouses rose from 6 to 300 metric tonnes per annum. Our new young growers were empowered to earn upper middle class incomes and on a year round basis. Being closer to the points of consumption many of the distribution losses were eliminated.
Our first new young grower started 5 years ago with only 200 sq m under greenhouse growing - today he has reinvested his profits to now have expanded more than 100 fold.
There appear to me so many relevant lessons. First I had a vision and a passion - in Nigeria I became known as "Mr Tomato"! There were many failures along the way - we had to overcome many challenges and absorb much learning. But combining passion with the right technology and tools literally changed the landscape! We turned the old ways of doing things on its head. We persevered. We created passion driven partnerships across the value chain. We never gave up. We never flinched from daily mentoring with our customers. Our success was utterly dependent upon theirs.
So YES ... I think this experience should perhaps have relevance to me as I embark upon new adventures in for me this new world of online marketing.