When life gives you tomatoes: One entrepreneur’s dreams come true

Learning digital business skills through HP LIFE helped Nkoli Uzoka change careers and create opportunities for people in her community.

By Leigh-Ann Jackson — November 22, 2021

Nkoli Uzoka was an executive secretary at the international oil and energy corporation TotalEnergies in Abuja, Nigeria, when she left in 2015 after working there for nearly 20 years. “Even though the salary was good, I wasn’t fulfilled,” says Uzoka. “One of my major reasons for leaving was to have time with my twin girls, who were 11 years old at the time.”

Knowing all too well the workweek struggle of clocking out at the office and then clocking right back in at home in the kitchen, Uzoka had an idea to make things a little bit easier for working women and mothers like herself: market and sell a ready-to-use product that would make nightly meal prep simpler. The budding entrepreneur pegged her target: tomatoes. Nigeria is one of the largest producers in sub-Saharan Africa. 

“The tomato is so abundant here, you don’t even know what to do with them,” she says, noting that in many households it’s common to freeze them for later use. But if a home cook forgets to set them out to thaw before heading to work, or one of the country’s frequent electricity outages sweeps through, that night’s plans for making national staples such as jollof rice, yam pottage, or egusi soup with tomatoes go right out the window. Thus Kuki Tomatoes, Uzoka’s brand of shelf-stable purée, was born.

Fati Abubakar

Left: Entrepreneur Nkoli Uzoka checking in at her factory. Right: Workers sorting peppers for the shelf-stable puree product line she created, Kuku Tomatoes.

A few years later, a former employer suggested that she enroll in the HP LIFE program, a free IT and business skills training program for entrepreneurs, business owners, and adult learners offered by the HP Foundation. The program is available in person and online in eight languages and in over 200 countries and territories, including Nigeria, where it’s partnered with the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). 

Digital tools are important for job searching and networking, building digital skills and literacy, and preparing for future careers, as well as launching small businesses that can reach consumers online. HP LIFE helps participants improve their tech and business skills with its roster of free, self-paced courses, including sales forecasting, strategic planning, finance basics, marketing, and effective leadership — all skills individuals need to gain a competitive edge in the business world. More than 504,000 learners have enrolled to date.


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The business skills training program helped Uzoka set her fledgling business on a course toward success. After enrolling in two sessions in 2019 — one online and one in-person — Uzoka learned business building blocks such as writing a developed business plan, devising unique value propositions, and crafting effective marketing strategies.

“The training showed me that there are a whole lot more digital advantages than I thought possible,” she says, adding that her digital prowess before enrolling had been “fair,” at best. “The high point for me was learning how to calculate the break-even point using Excel, because it helped me to set a realistic price for my product.”

Now, Uzoka’s Somzel (a portmanteau of her daughters’ names, Mmesoma and Mazeli) Agro Enterprise employs a team of 10 and distributes Kuki products to grocery stores throughout Nigeria. The business took a hit in 2020, when pandemic-related lockdowns slowed production. Additionally, violent clashes between opposing factions in Nigeria’s northern region — where the tomato crops she relies on are farmed — have led to intermittent supply chain obstacles. In a recent video interview, Uzoka credited HP LIFE with helping her stay afloat in the face of these obstacles.

Fati Abubakar

Left: Preparing the product for distribution. Right: Tomato sellers carry in bushels of their produce at the factory. Uzoka’s startup employs a team of 10 and distributes Kuki products to grocery stores throughout Nigeria.

“With the lockdowns and restrictions, we realized that we couldn’t sell in the regular way anymore. Everything shifted online. We had to evolve,” she says. To do so, she employed the online marketing know-how she acquired from the course. “The digital skills I learned during the HP LIFE training became essential in the new normal.

“My journey for the last six years has been financially difficult,” she adds, pointing out that embarking on her entrepreneurial journey meant walking away from a regular paycheck. “But nothing I’ve suffered in the course of my journey can compare with what I've gained from bonding with my daughters during the most important developmental stage of their lives.” 

Setbacks aside, she is optimistic that the fourth fiscal quarter, her peak sales period, will top the third quarter’s 7.8 million naira (US$19,000). Looking farther down the road, she intends to expand her company’s product line to include a variety of spice blends. As her business grows, Uzoka aims to uplift those around her, as well. She says that establishing a sense of community among her employees has been a priority for her. 

“I have had the opportunity of working with the women in our factory and feel proud that their engagement in our operations has brought them hope and dignity. They feel useful and empowered to have a place to go out to each day and earn a living.”