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Tomatoes are a staple in Nigerian diets. Vendors sell fresh vegetables in Lagos, Nigeria.

GEORGE OSODI/AP

In a nation where much of the tomato growing is done by small farmers, implementing a wide-scale program to eradicate a pest that has devastated the crop is difficult. But one Canadian company is looking for ways to help.

Nigeria's oil-heavy economy has been roiled lately – as it faces the same price pressures as other petroleum-producing nations, its oil infrastructure has been cut down by attacks from militant groups. Some business leaders and politicians have suggested turning to agriculture to steer Africa's biggest economy back on track. But there are problems there for farming, too.

Tomatoes are a staple in Nigerian diets, but the country's crops have been devastated by the arrival of Tuta absoluta, a species of South American moth whose larvae feed on tomato plants (below). In some regions of the country, it's been reported that more than 90 per cent of the latest tomato crop has been ruined, and the result is ratcheting up prices for consumers.

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Tuta absoluta is a species of South American moth whose larvae feed on tomato plants and has spread to Africa. Tomatoes are a staple in Nigeria and the country's crops have been devastated by the insect's arrival.

Thomas Canning (Maidstone) Ltd., which produces Thomas' Utopia Brand canned tomatoes in Ontario's tomato-rich Essex County, saw potential in Nigeria's tomato sector half a decade ago, and estimates the country is now responsible for 10 to 15 per cent of its business. Not only does the company import their canned-tomato products – it also conducts food-safety courses on the ground there. And with the rise of the crop-killing moth – informally dubbed "tomato Ebola" – the Nigerian Agricultural Quarantine Service has begun discussions with Thomas Canning to find solutions to reduce harm from the pest.

The Globe and Mail spoke with Bill Thomas, the company's chief executive, by phone.

How did you first start doing business in Nigeria?

The Canadian market, in terms of growth for tomato products, is not a large market. Think of tomatoes as a commodity – they're produced in the U.S. and in Italy and other parts of the world. We want to grow our business, but if we hit south, to the U.S., the scope of production makes it difficult for us to compete.

The countries that are the best choice already consume tomatoes and understand the product. Nigeria has a port in Lagos, and access to other countries – so selling in Nigeria is a logical entry point to West Africa.

Nigeria imports an awful lot of tomatoes and tomato paste, right?

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As in any developing country, agriculture is in the hands of a lot of small farmers. The government has seen the importance of agriculture in terms of creating jobs, and working in partnerships with other countries in trying to develop that sector for long-term stability. But despite the fact that they grow a lot of tomatoes themselves, they don't have a stable situation.

It's a staple in the diet there. A lot of it gets wasted, because of the heat. There are numbers like 60 to 70 per cent of that crop gets wasted and not used. Nigeria would very much like in the long term to be self-sustaining in terms of tomato production, but they still need imports for quite a while yet because of that gap. There are times during the dryer season in which crop yields can be lower, and they fall back on canned products at that time.

Do you just import your product to Nigeria?

The other thing we do is food safety. It's important for those people that buy our products. Let's say they're used in hotels – we would ship tomato product to a hotel, and show them there are safe ways to handle it. It's not just about our products. We do food safety training in conjunction with their department of agriculture. That has become a part of our business in Africa.

I'm not saying this is huge; a lot of it is a service, but there is a fee for it, and we make a little bit in the end. It benefits doing business in that part of the world. If you can assemble 150 people in the room from across the food industry, you have an opportunity to do food safety training, but also make connections and grow your business.

What's happening with Nigeria's tomato crops and the "tomato Ebola" moth?

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It's not been a problem in West Africa until now. As a moth, it lays its eggs on a tomato plant, and when those eggs hatch, larvae bore into the plant, and it's going to kill the plant. It's small, but sheer numbers create the problem. And in countries that are faced with this problem, they usually can control it. They have an increase in pesticide use, plus programs that help minimize spread, like crop rotation, not providing a host for the insect in the same field. There are ways of managing it.

But both of these things provide a particular challenge in regions like Africa where there are large numbers of small farmers. Pesticide use on large farms, with people who are used to using them, are much safer for people applying the pesticide and people consuming the product. But how can you get to every small farmer to explain how to use something?

How are you doing this?

They've asked us as a company to contribute what we can, in terms of helping control the problem. To me, it means, how can we handle this holistically? How do you develop a program? It has to be a few, simple measures that everybody can implement in order to reduce the populations of the insect. I don't have all the answers, but being in agriculture, we have successfully controlled similar problems in the past.

Like through crop rotation and careful use of pesticides?

Exactly. Good management practices. If you're going to use a pesticide, what is the safest possible pesticide to use? That type of research can minimize risk. But there has to be a component of education as well. And how do you deliver that? Having connections within agriculture in Nigeria can help you access a network. There have to be workshops set up to help communities resolve the problem.

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But that's part of the challenge to figure out: What is the best way to resolve this? If you think what works in North America works in the rest of the world, you're in trouble. What's primary is: What can we do in the short term to alleviate the problems, so Nigeria can continue to grow a staple crop?

When it's not in crisis, how would you describe Nigeria as a market for Canadian businesses?

Canada has a good deal of respect as a country. Canada is a marketing tool, because there's a good deal of interest in Canada and Canadian products. To a large extent, people don't even know tomatoes can be produced in Canada. It's not the most romantic industry to be in, tomato production, but how did California and Italy get so big? If we can get the rest of the world discussing what we do, that's only going to help everybody.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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