07 Dec What comes First: Factories or Raw Materials?
This chicken and egg conundrum is a common complexity that plagues agribusiness in Nigeria. For ReelFruit, without consistent and quality raw materials at a predictable price, we cannot operate a factory. On the flip side, without a factory demanding fruit, farmers have no incentive to increase production and quality of raw material. We explore what we’ve seen in the mango value chain and how we plan to use industry to pull up the fruit value chain.
In 2018, 34-year old Muhktar Adamu planted 1,000 mango trees on his family farm in Barakallahu, a village 10 km from Kaduna in northern Nigeria. He took over the orchard from his father who forayed into growing “the king of fruits” 15 years earlier.
In the four years it takes for mangoes to begin fruiting, Adamu did what he thought was right for his fledgling trees. He invited a farm specialist when a disease broke out in the orchard. He applied herbicides and pesticides, admittedly on a trial and error basis. And, he sought advice from a friend in Ghana, renowned for its thriving mango sector.
Fast forward four years. One April morning, in the early days of the mango season, Adamu woke up to a harsh reality: only 10 of his 1,000 trees had produced fruit. A meager 1%.
Devastating losses like Adamu’s have a catastrophic impact on Nigeria’s mango sector. Without a steady mango supply, processors tend to stay away.
Most small and medium agri businesses, like ours, rely on small farmers like Adamu. In an ideal world, agri processors would plant their own orchards to secure their raw materials. While this is a less risky approach, orchards are eye-wateringly expensive to develop and maintain. They require massive investment. Given the length of time before mango orchards produce fruit and can mint money, investors aren’t keen to back commercial fruit farms. They aren’t clamoring to sink their capital – literally – into the ground for years.
[Side note: we still plan to grow 40% of our fruit supply but it’s a part of our long-term strategic plans. We’ve had our past misadventures in mango farming, which taught us a lot and made us rethink our supply chain strategy.]
Nigeria’s mango farming is beset with a chicken vs the egg problem.
Processors nix plans to enter the market due to supply issues. Yet, farmers won’t farm mangoes of a certain caliber and quantity if there are no buyers.
Facing only middle men and inconsistent demand, small mango farmers have bleak prospects to forge a prosperous future.
The sorry state of Nigeria’s mangoes
Nigeria’s mango farming has fallen into a sorry state. Over decades, serious buyers, like processors of fresh cut or dry fruit as well as juice manufacturers, have quietly closed up shop, leaving farmers without a market.
In turn, smallholder farmers can’t justify investing the time or money into a risky venture like cultivating mangoes.
This has resulted in a mango sector has stagnated, with old trees, old varieties and low bearing fruit.
In the absence of reliable statistics, it is tricky to estimate the number of mango farmers across Nigeria. But, over the years, we’ve crisscrossed the country from Benue to Kaduna to Niger States to assess the mango crop. We’d wager there are roughly 500 mango farmers across Nigeria.
It’s a tiny number.
Since mango farming is still an informal affair, record keeping is abysmal. Most farm managers keep records in their heads. Without written records, mango farmers can’t track the orchard’s history: its year-on-year production, flowering and fruiting times, or fertilizer application.
Not to mention if the farm manager passes away, the records go with him. On our last upcountry trip in July, we visited a farm where the farm manager had recently died. No one could answer our questions because the intimate knowledge of the orchard went with him to the grave.
This snowballs into a host of other problems.
Without accurate records, farmers don’t know when the trees reach maturity. Instead, they rely on nta go gi, intuition, to pick the fruits. They turn out to be either unripe or too mature. For us, that’s a problem because it reduces the yield of high-quality fruit for processing.
In addition to record keeping, mango farmers do not know how to prune their trees. Without regular trimming of foliage, mango trees can tower up to 10m, almost five times their ideal 2.5m height to ensure optimal productivity. This creates a ripple effect at harvesting. Farmers do not pluck the fruit off trees once ripened. Rather they let them fall. Since the ripe mangoes drop from such a vertiginous height, they become severely bruised. That further reduces the yield of fruit we can dry and process for our snacks.
Inputs are also a problem area.
Farmers don’t have access to high quality and expensive inputs – fertilizers and pesticides.
Fertilizers are also a huge problem. Most small mango farmers use cow dung on their mango trees. This natural fertilizer might get the job done for other crops, but it’s a disaster for mango. The high nitrogen levels – from the cows’ grass diet – has a curious effect: the tree grows bigger, the foliage gets thicker, but the fruit isn’t sweet. A sour mango is not viable for processors.
The high quality inputs are half the battle. Mango farmers lack knowledge on controlling pests and disease. They try trial and error tactics to manage outbreaks which aren’t that effective.
Lastly, the common mango varieties in Nigeria are mostly untraceable and present peculiar processing challenges. Ogbomoso and Sheri mangoes, dotting the Nigerian countryside, have massive seeds and scanty flesh. The fruit is fibrous and stringy. This variety needs a lot of time and effort to peel and cut for drying but yields little output. High-quality varieties like Keitt and Kent mangoes are rare across the country.
Ghana gives a glimpse of a new future for Nigeria’s mangoes
Nigeria’s mango sector doesn’t have to look far for inspiration.
Ghana is proof that a struggling mango sector can be transformed.
Two decades ago, European fruit companies, Blue Skies and HPW, came to buy pineapples in Ghana. Once there, they scratched their heads and thought: what else can we buy?
Given that global demand for the king of fruits – so called for its high nutritional value and sweet flesh – was growing at 20-30% per year, mangoes were a no brainer.
With Blue Skies and HPW snapping up mangos across the country, Ghanaians soon flocked to the sector. Farmers invested time and resources into planting mangoes, as it was no longer a risky cash crop. In turn, buyers supported farmers with comprehensive agro-extension programs.
Fast forward twenty years. Mango farming is highly profitable in Ghana. From back of the envelope estimates, one hectare of mango with 200 trees generates $9,400 in total revenue. After 30% costs, farmers can earn $6,500 in profit.
Ghana’s mango sector is thriving. Ghana’s smallholder mango farmers have now risen to 6,000 and the country produces 55,000 MT of mangos per year.
Agro-extension programs were essential to transforming Ghana’s mango sector. To this day, HPW doesn’t own any land. It sources all its fruit from farmers, a testament to the success of its outgrower model.
How ReelFruit will revitalize Nigeria’s mango sector
At ReelFruit, we will only succeed in scaling our dried fruit snack business if we can make mango farming prosperous for farmers.
We’re thrilled to announce that we’ve received USAID grant to launch an agro-extension services program that will support over 200 Nigerian fruit farmers.
By hiring field agents, we’ll teach our partner farmers the best agricultural practices to produce a consistent supply of high-quality mangoes. We aim to buy 750 MW of mangoes – or 38 twenty ton trucks – in the 2022 season alone.
A constant stream of mangoes will not only keep our new Ogun State factory at full capacity, it will also dramatically increase the incomes of our partner farmers. Just like Ghana – whose mango sector was transformed by strong buyers – we hope our ambitious plans will revitalize Nigeria’s struggling mango sector.
Our agro-extension program
We want to do for Nigeria what HPW and Blue Skies did for Ghana: begin the process of breathing new life into the mango sector.
Backed by our USAID grant, we will tackle the root cause of the challenges facing mango farmers: knowledge.
To help us succeed, we’ve hired Mark Sarpong, a mango agronomist and expert, who will design and lead our agro-extension program. When we took Mark upcountry to visit our partner farmers, he was surprised by the state of the mango orchards. But, he also remarked, “This is where Ghana’s mango sector was over twenty years ago. There is no reason that Nigeria’s mango farmers cannot flourish.”
With Mark’s supervision, ten agents in five mango-growing states – Ekiti, Kaduna, Nasarawa, Adamawa, and Niger – will provide over 200 farmers with training on improved farming methods. Two agents will be assigned to each area and visit outgrowers regularly. Farmers will learn how to prune for maximum yield (no more monster trees!), apply fertilizers and ward off disease and pests with integrated pest management. They will be taught how to induce flowering to boost tree productivity and learn proper harvesting methods.
We’ll start our training with record keeping. We want farmers to track their trees from blossom to first fruits. Farmers will learn how to detect the subtle signs of maturity. For example, once the lenticil – the raised pores in the stem – turn from white to brown, the mango has reached maturity and is ready to be plucked.
We have our work cut out for us. For too long, Nigerian mango farmers have been left to their own devices. But, these are the initial areas that we’ll focus on to wield the biggest impact.
Making mangoes prosperous for farmers
Despite his crushing experience, Adamu hasn’t given up on mango. He always saw its potential in Nigeria.
This year, he joined our farmer network.
Through our agro-extension program, Adamu will not only produce mangoes to supply our factory but will acquire the best agricultural practices to produce high-quality mangoes for export. He plans to expand operations on his farm – he’s even told us he wants to supply us with even different types of fruit. [How we love ambitious farmers!]
As an agribusiness, we grow in lockstep with our farmers.
They grow, we grow.
It’s that simple.
Watch this video that summarizes the article.