Tomato Jos: The “Extra” Alternative Career for Top MBA Grads

A few months ago, I was speaking to a colleague about investing in a team of entrepreneurs in Africa. He said that he liked the team, but was a bit surprised one of the partners was a graduate of Harvard Business School. "I'm always confused," he said "when I speak to someone who could be making millions on Wall Street but decides to move to Africa to invest in agriculture companies."

Mira Mehta, my friend and former colleague, has gone one step further. After getting her MBA from HBS, she shunned the typical post-MBA career path and chose instead to start an agri-processing company based in Panda, Nigeria. 80% of Africans work in the agricultural sector and the continent has 60% of the world's uncultivated arable land. Yet Nigeria, a country with 200 million people, imports most of its processed food from abroad. Mira's start up "Tomato Jos" is trying to change that by growing and processing tomatoes locally.

In a country plagued by domestic terrorism and recession, Mira has raised $500,000 in seed capital and built an impressive pilot operation with yields 3-5x the standard for the region. She has achieved these results in a place 2-3 hours by road from the closest major city and no access to the power grid. She is currently raising a $1M+ follow on round based on her progress and has over 50% already committed. The weekend I spent in with her at her farm in rural Nigeria was a sharp contrast to my first MBA reunion, surrounded by classmates who were disillusioned in their roles at investments banks and consulting firms.

MBA programs pride themselves on developing future leaders. Traditional post-MBA roles at banks, consulting firms and major corporates offer incredible professional development programs. But you can also gain invaluable experience as well as professional fulfillment in non-traditional opportunities. As an entrepreneur, you can learn a lot raising capital, building a team, and dealing with constant setbacks. The entrepreneurial perspective is something people like myself who opted for more traditional post-MBA roles often lack, as my friend in Seattle pointed out in his recent blogpost (I am in the unnamed person who never ran a business who said debt is good).

So to the MBA students who will graduate in 2017 and beyond, I would urge you to look beyond some of the traditional careers and at least consider some of the exciting alternatives. Living in rural Nigeria isn't for everyone (I spent four years working in West Africa and the weekend I spent on Mira's farm was enough for me), but there are incredible opportunities for people willing and able to take the risks. Finance, consulting and corporates have their perks, but there are other ways to learn the fundamentals of business and leadership. So go try something new future MBA grads, and worst case, at least you're less likely to say something uninformed like I did when your entrepreneur friends ask for advice.

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Comments (17)

Nov 17, 2016 - 2:41pm

Huge fan of this approach and pretty interested in doing something like this down the road. My question though is how do you get into a career track like this? Just randomly moving to Nigeria doesn't seem like the best idea. I know a couple of IFC Analyst/Associate related posts have popped up on this forum, but would be interested in getting some perspective here

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Nov 17, 2016 - 2:45pm

I think spending some time in the markets you're interested in working in is helpful. Mira spent around four years working in Nigeria before starting Tomato Jos. Another idea is finding an entrepreneur in one of these markets looking to build out their team. Having the financial/professional IDB experience is a tremendous value add to some of these enterprises if you can stomach the salary reduction

Nov 17, 2016 - 5:03pm

Thanks for the advice, really appreciate it! Emerging markets/development is a whole different ball game but is much more interesting than traditional IB/PE for me

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Nov 17, 2016 - 3:15pm

Southeast Asia isn't a bad place to be either. For me, the math is simple: if tens or hundreds of millions of people will be getting smartphones in a given region in the near future, they're going to need the services we take for granted in the West but don't exist there yet. If you're a professional in VC, PE, RE, entrepreneurship, etc., emerging markets are an excellent place to be.

Nov 17, 2016 - 7:09pm

Imho SEA and LatAm (excluding Brazil) >> Africa, simply because of the kind of people there. Not to be discriminatory, but African peoples in most countries are yet to develop a national identity which supersedes tribal identities.

That being said, I would rather be looking for tech investment opportunities in the GCC Middle East countries and Iran. Talabat and Careem seemed to have proven resilient enough to withstand Western competition. Secure govts and easy capital from local investors.

GoldenCinderblock: "I keep spending all my money on exotic fish so my armor sucks. Is it possible to romance multiple females? I got with the blue chick so far but I am also interested in the electronic chick and the face mask chick."
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Nov 18, 2016 - 9:45am

I think this is awesome, but probably tough for a lot of MBAs given income uncertainty ... it is my impression that many MBAs are strapped with a hefty amounts of debt, and thus, taking an opportunity guaranteeing a high level of compensation is necessary.

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Nov 18, 2016 - 2:45pm

I thought about doing it within Rwanda. When I was applying for College I actually almost tryed Economics because of a discussion I had with one of the guys I found at the Campus, about getting to Rwanda and doing business there, and the stuff I had to learn before doing this...

I was amazed with the possibilities (which I built into the discussion by myself), and I actually thought about Nigeria and Angola. Specially for the market possibilities and width. But, after Isis I left it all. Still thought about making it to Singapore, but Asia looks something far distant from what I want (to buy a bank there would be easy, but to get clients and get things done...).

I actually want a big market, with a strong currency. Only thing to do, is what the market wants. It's simple. I actually do it already, so I kinda know what I'm talking about (not at banking, actually).

Nov 18, 2016 - 4:09pm

You definitely don't have to be a "top MBA grad" to move to an emerging market. I know people with Associates' degrees who are successful entrepreneurs abroad. A Harvard MBA (and more importantly, already being well-to-do like Mira) obviously helps with fundraising, though.

Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes.
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Nov 19, 2016 - 1:59am

Isaac, thanks for the topic. In what degree of knowledge would you say is adequate for those who are curious to consider this venture in regards to emerging markets in Africa:

1) Cultural and Social Adaptation
2) The impact on the current country and surrounding border countries from political dynamics
3) Laws
4) Market idiosyncrasies in Africa
5) Infrastructure

Nov 19, 2016 - 5:32pm

It depends on the country, but in the case of Nigeria, I would want to feel pretty comfortable with #2 and #5. If you're interested in pursuing an entrepreneurial venture in Africa, would recommend connecting with people who are already there running companies. Most were fairly willing to chat with me when I reached out, and that was before I worked at an investment firm :)!

Nov 21, 2016 - 6:18am

I have seen the similar story with my friend who also had MBA from top European program and an experience from consulting firm in the US. The endurance and persistence are all great qualities to achieve your goals in this kind of markets. It seems if you can afford low pay in the developing/emerging markets for first few years, it can pay off very well. However, you should keep it in mind a. super stressful environment (both personally and professionally), b. uncertainty and risks that are out of your power/influence and c. overall your happiness - these did not seem to be challenging factors but constant battle with them could really wear you down.

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Nov 21, 2016 - 8:20am

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