With crispy amadumbe and cassava in hand, social entrepreneur Sibongile Mtsabe is on a mission to improve the lives of young women by manufacturing and creating a market for products made from these vegetables.
Both amadumbe (Colocasia esculenta), which is native to tropical eastern Asia, and cassava (Manihot esculenta), native to South America, have been naturalised in Southern Africa
The KwaZulu-Natal businesswoman, founder of Sibocali Foods, who has established a small food manufacturing plant in Illovo township on the South Coast, has become the first to commercially produce and market crisps made from amadumbe (taro) that she sells directly to shops in Durban and Johannesburg, and through her slick online store.
She also makes banana crips, low GI cassava porridge and flour as well as sweet potato flour, aiming to rise into a major food producer to meet the demand for healthy, nutrient rich foods, while developing small-scale farmers across the country.
So far, she supplies independent shops in Umhlanga, Hillcrest, Shongweni and Randburg, chain store Manolis, and she has just landed a contract to supply growing KwaZulu-Natal food retailer Oxford Fresh Food Markets.
Mtsabe, who started the business in 2013, employs nine people who work on her manufacturing line, which uses high-tech containers on rented land, and she travels the province to source raw materials from smallholder farmers, especially women, creating a demand for their produce. She started selling amadumbe crisps in 2019.
Mtsabe said she had noted that there are about six million people living in rural areas in KwaZulu-Natal alone and in her own community 50% are unemployed. It is her mission to grow her small business into a leading food producer that uplifts rural and township women with business opportunities.
She tells the story of *Zama, a young woman who travelled from Magabheni village to an urban township to find greener pastures because of the lack of economic opportunities back home.
“She could not afford to pay for a decent apartment in the city and the option was the Mayville township close to Durban which offered a cheaper shack. She left a good and warm home to stay in an informal settlement in quest of searching for greener pastures,” Mtsabe said.
“This exposed her to falling into the trap of dating sugar daddies to get some money to survive and to the chance of unwanted pregnancy. We met with Zama and discovered that there is unused land at her village home that can be used to better her family and neighbours’ lives,” she said.
She said her business had provided seeds to the young woman’s community to grow vegetables.
“We intend to increase income for youth and women in rural areas and township communities in South Africa by creating a market and building up sustainable farmers by helping them to acquire commercial farming skills and to get support from the department of agriculture,” she said.
Sibocali Foods is not Mtsabe’s first foray into business. She has, like many entrepreneurs, started up a raft of businesses, before finally hitting success with a niche product.
She grew up in Cape Town and Alice in the Eastern Cape, where her father worked as a teacher, and studied a national diploma in marketing at the Walter Sisulu University of Technology in East London, followed by a marketing degree at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.
Mtsabe landed a job working as a marketing assistant at Capitec Bank before moving to Metropolitan Health Group to take up a post as a fund coordinator. She quit her job when she and her husband Calistus Nchifor, who also now works with her in the business, moved to Durban.
“I was unemployed for 11 years. I started different projects that failed. When I left work, I thought I would do admin jobs part time and get a vending machine at the airport to sell snacks to people but it didn’t work as I could not get funding,” she said.
She said she had approached the Small Enterprise Development Agency for guidance on starting a business and an unhelpful official had told her: “You are not even worth a million [rand]”.
“That person demoralised me but from there I didn’t stop,” she said.
Focusing on the snack industry, she saw an opportunity to source cashew nuts from Coastal Cashew Farmers in Manguzi to sell them directly to households in Durban.
“But when I said to the farmers that I need a tonne of nuts, they couldn’t supply me,” she said.
She said she approached food scientists at the Elsenburg Agricultural Training Institute in the Western Cape to start trials to produce cashew yoghurt and milk, but she realised this was not a crop she could grow quickly to supply a manufacturing facility. The plant takes five years to grow to produce fruit and she realised it would also take time to find land.
“One day I was sitting, and I thought let me do something I can do from point one to the last and so I decided to ask God to find me another idea, and one day I was praying, and the idea came … ‘start amadumbe’,” Mtsabe said.
She said she learned that amadumbe are also a nutritious vegetable — they are low GI, contain niacin (B3) and calcium and are high in protein and fibre, making them a good substitute for vegetarians and people on low-carbohydrate diets.
Mtsabe said she and her husband made the first batch of amadumbe crisps at home and gave them to people to sample. The product was an instant hit and when she was invited to exhibit at the Durban Business Fair in 2018 the couple got to work producing about 100 40 and 100 gram packets to sell.
“It took us so long because it is a rigorous process and the amadumbe is sticky, so it was not easy. Before the end of day one we were sold out, so we went home and made more. We made a small profit,” she said.
She went on to win the Ygap business accelerator programme and was the first runner-up in the KwaZulu-Natal department of agriculture and rural development’s Female Entrepreneurs award in 2019. Ygap gave her the first container for the business and she used the cash from the second award to buy machinery.
The Agricultural Development Agency (ADA) helped her to test all her products for their chemical and nutritional values.
ADA spokesperson Palesa Kwitshana said the agency had undertaken a microbiological and nutritional analysis of the amadumbe crisps, cassava instant porridge, cassava flour, and sweet potato flour. She said the microbial analysis assists in maintaining food safety standards, while the nutritional analysis informs the business in terms of its product labelling.
Mtsabe has big plans to grow her brand locally and in Africa, where she plans to help farmers develop and eventually also export her products.
“I am passionate about cooking. I am passionate about trying new things in the kitchen. Our business exists to make money, but we want to impact Africa and reach places where people think that businesses cannot happen, and help people use their land to generate an income for themselves,” Mtsabe said.
*Name has been changed to protect her identity
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Power Of Women