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Ghost tomato factory showcase for Nigeria's farming problems

Wed 30th August, 2017 7:00am
* Nigeria is trying to build up local food production 
    * Biggest tomato paste factory idle due to lack of supplies 
    By Ulf Laessing 
    KANO, Nigeria, Aug 30 (Reuters) - At a state-of-the-art 
plant in northern Nigeria, shiny machines stand next to a 
conveyor belt ready to crush tomatoes to satisfy the country's 
insatiable demand for tomato paste. 
    But a lonely cleaner mopping the floor is the only sign of 
activity in Nigeria's biggest tomato factory, equipped with the 
latest Italian and German technology. There aren't enough 
tomatoes to run it. 
    It's a powerful symbol of Nigeria's uphill challenge to 
build up agricultural production and end costly food imports to 
feed its 190 million people. The West African nation imports 
staples from milk to wheat to tomato paste, with funds it mainly 
earns from exporting oil. 
    The conglomerate of Africa's richest man, Aliko Dangote,  
launched the plant in March 2016, contracting Italian engineers 
working for months on a 350 euro-a-day allowances to set up the 
machines outside Kano, the main city in the north. 
    On paper this looked like a smart move as Nigeria imports up 
to 400,000 tonnes of tomato paste annually. The tinned paste is 
an ingredient in Nigerian tomato stew, used as the base for a 
host of traditional meat stews, sauces, soups and rice dishes 
that are staples of Nigerian cooking. 
    Dangote Group had thought of every technical detail, even 
setting up a control room linking its engineers to experts in 
Italy in case there was a problem. 
    But it underestimated the difficulties involved in getting 
tomatoes, despite signing deals with some 5,000 farmers 
guaranteeing them to pay more than the market price. 
    Lacking fertilizers and working with their bare hands, the 
farmers have been unable to produce the quality and quantity the 
plant needs to make paste. Much of the last season's output was 
wiped out by a pest. 
    The plant has been so far unable to find other supplies 
despite Nigeria producing some 1.5 million tonnes of tomatoes 
annually. A lack of good roads due to decades of corruption 
means tomatoes would perish on the way. Half of the country's 
output gets wasted. 
    Bar a few weeks, the plant has been standing idle, said its 
frustrated manager said A.L. Kaito, the managing director of 
Dangote Farms in charge of the plant.        
    "We are trying to weather out the storm, the cost is 
horrendous," said Kaito. "It's a nightmare." 
    Dangote spent some 4 billion naira ($12.74 million) on the 
plant and now plans to set up its own tomato cultivation scheme 
for around ten billion naira to cover up to 70 percent of its 
needs, buying land and tractors. Experts from Israel, Mexico and 
Spain will be flown in. 
    The tomato plant hopes to restart work in January at just 
half of its capacity of 1,200 tonnes a day after the next 
season, in the meantime costing 5 million naira every month. 
    Dangote has kept workers sitting at home on the payroll: the 
Italians spent months training them on the new machines. 
    The investment is paltry for its owner, who is spending 
billions of dollars on cement plants, sugar and rice schemes 
across Africa. His cement business alone posted revenues worth 
in 615 billion naira in 2016. 
    But for President Muhammadu Buhari the idle plant is a major 
setback after another tomato factory in Lagos threw in the towel 
in November 2016, unable to import tomatoes due to a lack of 
hard currency as Nigeria struggles with recession. 
    Buhari had, since his election in 2015, made it a priority 
to end dependency on food under the motto: "We must produce what 
we eat." 
    To encourage agriculture investments like the Dangote plant, 
the government has waived duties for greenhouse and processing 
    It is also giving subsidies to rice farmers and is 
considering expanding the scheme to tomato growers, a senior 
official in the federal ministry of agriculture said. 
    Officials had hoped to create jobs in agriculture to fight 
poverty in the north where some unemployed young men have joined 
an eight-year insurgency by Boko Haram jihadists. 
    But experts and farmers say, after decades of corruption 
holding back road and electricity projects and an obsession with 
producing oil, it will take time to improve the tomato output. 
    Low quality seed and a lack of power for pumping water means 
 tomatoes can be grown only during the dry season, which creates 
a glut in March. 
    Farmers then lay out their tomatoes alongside highways 
hoping motorists will buy them. Anything that does not get sold 
within 24 hours is usually wasted due to a lack of cold storage. 
    They also ship some to Lagos, the southern megacity 1,000 km 
(600 miles) south of the factory. A basket of tomatoes sells for 
2,000 naira in Lagos, but only around 10 percent of that ends up 
in farmers' pockets as traders and truckers take their cut. 
    "We don't have fertilizers and there is no power for cold 
rooms," said Sani Yadakwari, chairman of the some 10,000 tomato 
farmers in Kano state. "We need subsidies for our production." 
    Dangote has been supplying farmers with a Dutch seed which 
is expected to gradually boost the yield to 50 tonnes of 
tomatoes a hectare from 10 to 15 tonnes now, said Kaito.  
    But Adamu Sani, an agronomist working for the World Bank, 
was sceptical production would rise soon as farmers needed to 
get trained to use the new seeds which had not been tested yet 
on a large scale in Nigeria. 
    Dangote calls the plant the biggest in Africa. But the size 
might be a disadvantage: "The minimum capacity of the Dangote 
plant is too high for the little volumes you can get from 
farmers," Sani said. 
 (Editing by Peter Graff) 
 ((Ulf.Laessing@thomsonreuters.com; Reuters Messaging: follow me 
on twitter @ulflaessing)) 
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