Aliko Dangote. Photo: Reuters
Aliko Dangote. Photo: Reuters
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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.But 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 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, opened the plant in March 2016, contracting Italian engineers working for months on a 350 (R5468) a day allowances to set up the machines outside Kano, the main city in the north.

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On paper this looked like a smart move as Nigeria imports up to 400000 tons 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.

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But it underestimated the difficulties in getting tomatoes, despite signing deals with some 5000 farmers guaranteeing them to pay more than the market price. Lacking fertilisers 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 1.5million tons of tomatoes annually. The lack of good roads due to decades of corruption means tomatoes would perish on the way. Half the country’s output gets wasted.

Apart from a few weeks, the plant has been standing idle, said AL 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 (R145million) on the plant and now plans to set up its own tomato cultivation scheme for around 10bn naira to cover up to 70percent of its needs, buying land and tractors. Experts from Israel, Mexico and Spain will be flown in.

Restarting plant

The tomato plant hopes to restart work in January at just half of its capacity of 1200 tons a day after the next season, in the meantime costing 5m 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 615bn 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’s 2015 election motto was: “We must produce what we eat.” 

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- REUTERS