Varsity student earns big making jam from tomatoes

Jean-Paul Nageri (right) and his business partner Lorna Orubo in their kitchen in Mukono. PHOTO BY Mathias Wandera

Eevery product’s most loyal customer is an entrepreneur behind it. And this notion comes to life when you meet 24-year-old Jean-Paul Nageri, a final year Agricultural Science and Entrepreneurship student at Uganda Christian University, Mukono.

Nageri is the founder Mashariki Organic Farm Ltd and now the brain behind Wonder Jam, his company’s major flagship product.

As he takes a bite at a slice of bread with Wonder Jam spread, he takes a brief pause, closes his eyes to savour the deliciousness, then jokingly says, “this is the jam they will serve us when we enter the gates of heaven!”

Such is the pride Nageri has in Wonder Jam, a product of his own research, made with tomatoes as the main ingredient. And perhaps his pride is justified, something you get to learn when you taste the jam—a distinct taste; sweet and savoury.

“That is the kind of taste I wanted to bring out. I wanted to make jam that pronounces the taste and flavour of the fruit used, not just the sugar,” Nageri explains. He notes that the problem with most jam products is that the ingredient fruits are shut out and all that one is left to taste is the sugar.

“Many manufacturers use a lot of sugar and in the end have to add artificial flavours to cover up. Wonder jam, however, keeps the tomato flavour intact. It is even healthy given that tomatoes have anti-cancer properties.”

A love for innovation
It is through his personal research, that Nageri has a product sitting on the shelves of notable retailers. For him however, there is nothing surprising about his success to this point. Like he says, “Science and innovation are no strangers to me. My grandparents were blacksmiths and I even have some of their remnant steel products.”

For some reason, the tall and jolly youth from Busia District has always bent his innovative and entrepreneurial acumen to the side of food products. He reminisces a time he wanted to deal in malwa, a local alcoholic beverage.

“It is the most popular drink back home in Budimo, so I wanted to give it more value, and then package it better for sale. That was about three years back,” Nageri recollects. It is an idea he did not push forth, because after a bit of thought, he realised there were better ways to contribute to his society.

Turning to yoghurt
With a burning thirst for innovation, Nageri decided to take a stab at making yoghurt. But he was short of capital.
“My pockets were dry to the bone!” he says.

Worse still, his parents were not willing to give him a single coin because they considered yoghurt business a failed cause in Busia. “And I understood their concerns. I have not known the Samia to love yoghurt.”

Nonetheless, Nageri borrowed Shs25,000 from a close cousin to make his experimental packs. Unfortunately for him, the starting yoghurt he made was a disaster. “It was too thick, greyish, not uniform in terms of thickness and even slimy. My cousin tasted it and advised that I give up.”

It was the kind of advice Nageri would not take. Instead, he decided to fine-tune his product. He reduced the incubation period from 16 to seven hours, adjusted sugar proportions and he was good to go.

“It took me a lot of time but finally, Mashariki Natural Yoghurt was born. I gave the first 20 packs to one of my young cousins to ride to the market. All were bought before he reached the market!”

Ending yoghurt phase
A few weeks in and his product was only growing stronger. Nageri had attained a licence to supply the entire district in just a month, and during the same time he had made Shs3 million.

His success, however, did not last long given that his access to milk was limited. “People preferred to sell their milk to Kenya across the border, sighting the Kenyan shilling as more lucrative.”

Natural goodness
It is with the experience from the yoghurt business that Nageri started making jam, and using tomatoes as his primary raw material. “Of course, tomatoes have a health value, but also, they are so readily available. By using tomatoes, I can be assured that suppliers will not let me down.”

Today, he works in collaboration with Lorna Orubo, a friend and classmate to produce Wonder Jam at their rented kitchen in Mukono, and many times they employ extra labour on temporary basis to help them meet the orders in place.

As Orubo says, business is picking fast but still remains challenging. “Obviously, we need more funding if we are to grow as fast as we potentially can. Plus, we have lacked mentorship and have made a couple of business mistakes along the way, and we also don’t have a lot of time given that we both attend university.”

All these, however, are challenges the duo hopes to surmount, envisioning that in the next two years, their product will have space on the shelves of every major retailer in the country.