Nokwanda Shabalala’s journey into the FMCG industry is certainly an interesting one. The Fulbright Scholar and Global Leader Fellow comes from the world of finance where she was an experienced investment banker and strategist. Ayiba’s Eyitemi Popo discusses her entrepreneurial journey with True Earth, a range of local gluten-free products sold at accessible prices for moms across Africa, made by another mom.
You were inspired to create True Earth by your own personal experiences with food intolerances. Can you tell us how you went from identifying a problem to creating the solution?
In 2012, when my son was diagnosed with a few intolerances, we went on to discover just how expensive the alternatives were and that all were imports. We sacrificed what we could to purchase these products and our son’s quality of life more than improved. It stayed with me though that not everyone who needs these products could access them at those prices. The idea was then born to explore if producing them locally would reduce pricing.
When I finally garnered enough courage to leave my corporate career and start this business, I did the necessary research, product development, sourced suppliers, courted customers (retailers) and went live for the first time during the last week of August 2019!
That’s amazing! Congratulations. Which of your past experiences (both personally and professionally) has been most useful in launching your company?
I must tell you that for me starting this business has been a phenomenon of Steve Jobs’ “connecting dots” commencement speech. I have had to call upon almost all my experiences at different points of my life, including my grade 9 accounting at one point!
If I must pick one that has been the most useful it would be my Business Development experience while at SABMiller. There I was responsible for building business models and business plans for significant projects: greenfield breweries, brownfield projects, acquiring new businesses, etc. Starting anew is like a greenfield project, the difference being you do not have the funds to actually start it the same way you would with a large organisation – but the principles and skills required are the same.
What does your brand represent in the African market?
I am all about Africans doing things for themselves – employing ingredients and supplies from the continent and showcasing African excellence.
There’s a movement I subscribe to that seeks to dispel the myth that imports are always superior to locally produced alternatives.
This of course places the responsibility on producers in the continent to make sure that they produce goods and services of the highest quality: products that are beyond reproach and that fellow Africans can be proud to point out as produced in Africa. There is a great deal of excellence on this continent and I hope, in a small way, that TrueEarth can be counted amongst brands that represent African excellence.
I love that the products are made in Africa. Can you tell us about your supply chain? How do you source your ingredients?
We source our raw materials almost entirely from South Africa. There are only two ingredients in one of your products that are not sourced locally: oat flour and rice flour. The climate in South Africa does not allow commercial farming of rice, and then the oats that is available in SA is mostly not guaranteed to be gluten-free due to the fact that it is usually transported or handled at the same time as other gluten carrying grains such as wheat.
When TrueEarth “grows up”, we want to look further north of our borders to countries on the continent that produce rice, to see if we can establish a reliable supply chain to source Rice Flour from other parts of Africa. At TrueEarth, we also would like to get closer to our primary agriculture suppliers by sourcing grains from rural South Africa, where our people have access to land but no access to good farming expertise and no access to market.
We want to partner with government and non-governmental agencies in this space of rural development and agriculture, to establish supply nodes where we, and other like-minded companies that source the same grains, can offer a market to the rural farming communities and perhaps develop a few commercial farmers in the process. We are not there yet, but this remains at the top of our ambitions.
Maybe some of our readers can help you connect those dots, so it’s great that you are putting your plans out there. What are some of the aspects that you didn’t expect to find challenging in building your business?
I was sober minded by the time I started this business so I expected everything to be a challenge but I must admit, even with that expectation, there were still some things that were more of a challenge than I expected. A major one was finding local contract manufacturers willing to produce on our behalf. I spent over 14 months looking for suppliers that were willing to produce for us. We ended up with the best but shoo, at one point I was ready to import from Europe; which was a painful point to reach for me because I truly wanted these products to be produced on this continent.
For many female entrepreneurs, financing is the hardest part. How did you finance the company?
It truly is a challenge. A friend of mine who is also my mentor, once said to me, in passing, but it stuck: back yourself first then others may follow. I did exactly that.
I emptied all my and my family’s life savings into this business and moved onto to friends in order to source enough to launch. While all of that was happening, I started applying for funding to various government agencies. The turnaround times are long and the questions are long and unending. Finally we got approved for a medium sized loan with the GEP, which has helped us solidify the launch and also enter a new product that is coming out soon, hopefully early Q1 2020.
Do you consider yourself a mompreneur? What does that term mean to you?
I find the term mompreneur quite funny actually, I do not give it much thought, I just think I am a mom and I am an entrepreneur, so I guess they are right that I am a mompreneur. I read nothing further to it.
I love being both: mom and entrepreneur. But of course, those that think I cannot be taken seriously because of that – they can undermine me at their own peril because I am here to do business, good business, mom or not!