Deal to Send Leamington Tomatoes to Nigeria

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Windsor Star/Mary Caton

A groundbreaking, multimillion dollar export deal will see Leamington tomato products hit store shelves in Nigeria next month.

In an agreement announced Tuesday at DVD Farms in Leamington, Thomas’ Utopia Brand will provide $25 million worth of product annually to Nigeria’s Festrut Group.

Bill Thomas, CEO of Utopia Brand, said providing a minimum of 2.2 million cases will require the harvest of 3,000 additional acres of tomatoes from Essex and Kent counties, representing approximately 20 farmers.

“This is groundbreaking for Essex County,” said Brian Payne of the Windsor Essex Economic Development Corporation.

“When’s the last time we announced a large export deal outside of Essex County other than to the U.S.? In spite of Heinz, the future is so bright. We’re going to turn the industry on its head.”

Heinz announced plans to close its processing plant in Leamington this year, leaving tomato growers scrambling for new buyers.

“This is fantastic news,” said David Dick, a third-generation farmer and owner of DVD Farms. “It’s paramount to the survival of the industry. The whole Heinz closure really gave Essex and Chatham-Kent some real exposure for tomato production.”

Dick also serves as chairman of the Ontario Tomato Seedling Growers’ Marketing Board.

“It’s a significant project as you can see by the numbers,” Thomas said. “We need to develop the market.”

Utopia Brand will build a new processing facility on South Talbot Rd. to handle the added production which Thomas said could result in as many as 40 new jobs.

Thomas has visited Nigeria several times and describes it as “a large tomato consuming country.”

At 160,000,000 and growing, Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa.

Dr. Festus Asikhia, the founder, president and CEO of Festrut Group, was also on hand for Tuesday’s announcement.

“We know this is a good product,” Asikhia said. “I promise to make this brand known in Nigeria.”

Eventually, plans call for Utopia to oversee a production factory in Nigeria.

“There are job creation opportunities for Nigerians and Canadians, as well,” Asikhia said. “We’re talking about 15,000 jobs by the time we grow to the point of setting up a factory in Nigeria.”

Charlie Wright, Leamington’s deputy mayor, described the partnership as “just the tip of the iceberg.

“Everyone wins in the chain when you export to another country,” he said. “Nigeria has five times the population of Canada. They won’t be able to keep up.”

Asikhia said this is Festrut Group’s first Canadian partnership. Utopia products are to be unveiled in Nigeria May 23.