Nancy and Zita Kafwimbi decided to venture into the spice business when they noticed that 90% of the spices in the country’s supermarkets were imported. This realization gave birth to Sage Valley, a homegrown company working tirelessly to localize the Zambian spice market, often with unique spices that customers are spoilt for choice

For generations humans have perfected culinary art, courtesy of spices, that not only add flavour and aroma but preserve foods and have a tone of medicinal value.  Yes, I’m talking about spices, which during the ancient and medieval times were of great value just like gold and other precious stones. Still to date the spice trade is booming across the globe propelled by increasing demand for authentic cuisines and the growing fondness towards enjoying various kinds of flavours in foods and beverages.

Taking note of this trend among other factors, Sage Valley commenced operations about two years ago birthed out of the love for spices that Ms. Zita Kafwimbi, the co-founder of the company shared with her sister and business partner, Ms. Nancy Kafwimbi, of turning basic foods into tantalizing and scrumptious meals by just adding spices and herbs.

However, the push to venture into the business came when the keen entrepreneurs took note of the fact that the condiment aisles in most retail outlets in the country were dominated by imported brands accounting for nearly 90% of the market share.

“That rang a bell for us to consider the path of entrepreneurship that we decided to take on and also given the fact that most people want to identify with something ethnic and local. For us that is something that stood out and we decided to fill the gap,” said Zita. The brand was established under their already formed company Evnoia Supply and General Trading Limited.

Prior to setting the turbines rolling, the duo undertook extensive research to determine whether the business idea was viable, by first doing a background check on the availability of raw materials. Luckily, they crossed paths with some spice and herbaceous plant farmers in the country and that gave them the impetus to channel investments in the idea. The one or two raw materials that they found were hard to be sourced locally, they opted to import from other countries.

Spoilt for choice with unique blends

Seeming like taking a page from the likes of Jeff Bezos who founded Amazon in his garage, and Mark Zuckerberg who created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, Zita and her partner first commenced their operations at their home kitchen for about a year. Later they moved to a smaller facility in the country’s capital Lusaka, where they undertook the processing, packaging and dispatch operations, pushing about 30,000 units of products per month.

With the drive of becoming a household name, Sage Valley made a bold statement from the onset by availing a wide range of products. Under its spice line the company boasts of over 20 products coming in powder, granulated or crushed form. These include garlic, black pepper, parsley, cinnamon, ginger, paprika, turmeric, curry, rosemary, mixed herbs, Himalayan salt and coarse salt. The spices also include food specific additives such as steak & chops, barbeque, chips, chicken, rice and fish, in addition to exotic offerings such as Italian Herbs and the Portuguese Chicken Spice.

Sage Valley has further set itself apart from its peers in the market and heightened its competitive edge with its paste line comprising of garlic, ginger, curry, chilli, garlic & herbs, garlic & ginger and garlic & chilli with a longer shelf-life under refrigeration. “We try to have a balance of the whole spectrum of the culinary world so that everyone can have a chance to use our spices,” notes Zita. Other than promoting indulgence, Sage Valley is also championing healthy eating as its products have no added artificial colorants or flavours and contain 50% less salt.

“After processing we package the spices in 100 grams glass bottles and 100 grams bio-degradable refill pouches while the pastes come in reseal-able glass containers, which are all labelled with our brand name ready for market,” she elaborated.

Food safety and sustainability compliant

Zita notes that the choice of their packaging materials deliberately aimed at promoting reuse, thus minimizing pollution. Once a customer buys the glass bottled spice, following subsequent purchases of the pouches can then be emptied into the former package. Also, the pouches can be used within the shelf-life of the product as they feature  re-closable, zip locks.

By having such packaging options, Sage Valley is preventing tonnes of packaging containers from reaching the landfills and water bodies. For the pouches, Zita revealed that they are working towards recycling the plastic packages, harkening to the warning by UN Environment that by 2050 there will be about 12 billion tons of plastic litter in landfills and the natural environment globally, if current consumption patterns and waste management practices do not improve. Currently the world produces more than 400 million tons of plastics every year of which only 9 per cent is recycled.

The agro-processor’s focus is not just to avail innovative products with eye catching branding, as the start-up has implemented robust food safety management systems in its operations with its Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZABS) certification acting as proof.  “We are yet to be certified Halaal compliant by the Zambian Halaal Association to indicate that our production is compliant with the Islamic law,” said Zita.

Fast penetration in the local market

With the ZABS mark of quality embodied on the product, Sage Valley’s goods have been able to fast penetrate the local market, reaching far and wide. The company has partnered with the major wholesalers in the country who act as points of contact to the small retailers who operate shops within neighbourhoods. Further to that, the pastes and spices prominently feature in some of the leading supermarket chain stores in the country hat  such as Shoprite, Pick n Pay, Zambeef stores and Melissa.

Zita excitedly noted that the company’s partnership with Shoprite, the leading retailer in Africa was and is still one of the biggest achievements they have ever attained. “That was the dream, as it was one of our main goals to achieve when we first set out. The day that we got our first order, we threw a party as we had finally made it!”

Clearly, that was no mean fit achievement as it demonstrated a huge shift by Sage Valley since it commenced operations, from supplying only one mini-supermarket to fashioning 42 Shoprite stores across the country, translating to rise in sales volume.

Being a company operating in the digital era, the start-up has leveraged different social media platforms to raise awareness about its products and divulge any important information pertaining to the brand which may include new release, market presence, promotions, among others. “The response in the market has been overwhelmingly positive, obviously because our blends are very unique and different from what people are used to, which gives us encouragement to continue,” Zita says.

Access to financing still a pain-staking process

Still being a company at its infancy stage and having products displayed at leading retail outlets, one would deem Sage Valley as an overnight success.  However, that is not the case as Zita and Nancy have had their fair share of curve balls thrown at them. One of the challenges that the company recently faced was the disrupted access to raw materials such as packaging that they source from South Africa, a region that has experienced multiple lockdowns, border closures and movement restrictions. “The goods that managed to come in the country were still taking longer to reach us, which meant there was delay and irregularity in supply of the finished products to the markets, overall having a negative impact on our bottom-line performance,” stated Zita.

Looking into the future, the company is targeting to establish a state-of-art processing facility, which will ensure its processing is undertaken efficiently.

Aside from that, the company has been facing hurdles in access to finance. Zita notes that, “Because we are still a growing company supplying large chain stores, we find ourselves needing more short-term finance such as order financing, but most financial institutions do not offer such and the individuals that do, have ridiculous interest rates that do not help growing businesses. We have yet to eliminate this particular challenge but there are some financial institutions that are slowly starting to tailor products that growing businesses can access.”

Glimmer of hope

Mid last 2020, the start-up clinched a K250, 000 (US$13,000) revolving working capital facility from the Empress Fund, managed by Africa Trust Group (ATG) based in Cape Town, South Africa. The Empress Fund was established by a syndicate group of high-net-worth individuals from across the African continent and diaspora, to invest in the growth of women-owned businesses in SADC.

The funding came at an opportune time  as the COVID-19 pandemic had just hit and the company had got listed in several Shoprite stores. The financing was used for the purchase of more machinery and extra raw material stocks needed to meet the rising demand.

Other than getting financial backing, the brand has been celebrated for its exceptional performance in the market. Sage Valley received its first award in 2020 from the Nkonka Women in Agro Business in conjunction with Stanbic Bank, for the upcoming value addition business. This was followed by being crowned the best value addition enterprise in March 2021 at the Zambia Small Scale Farmers Agriprenuership awards.

In a bid to continue having a positive impact in the society, Sage Valley is planning to launch an out-grower scheme to work with women cooperatives and foster local production of the different types of herbs as some of them are not readily available, such as black pepper.

“The project will educate local women on how to diversify from growing local crops such as groundnuts and maize to adding herbs and spices as there will be a market to offtake their harvests and sell them at market value to improve their lives,” notes Zita. This will further expand the number of farmers the company currently works with, which stands at 15 small-holder producers. It will also reduce its cost of production by making the products readily available

Setting eyes on the future

Looking into the future, the company is targeting to establish a state-of-art processing facility, which will ensure its processing is undertaken efficiently and effectively. This is in line with its quest of entering the export market, starting with the SADC region and hopefully the rest of the continent, riding on the newly formed African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), representing 1.2 billion consumers.

“I think the future is really bright for us, there is still a lot of market that we can achieve both locally and internationally. Global seasoning and spices market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 4.7% in the next 5 years with the trend of incorporating spices into ready to eat and ready to drink beverages. For that reason we plan to position ourselves to be able to offer our products to similar innovations,” states Zita.

The growth of the company will also mean more contribution to the economy, such as creation of more job opportunities, an addition to its current team of 7 permanent employees and 10 to 15 casual workers.

Looking at the business strategy of Sage Valley, the brand is set to spice up the food experience with its premium quality products across the region.

This feature appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Food Business Africa. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE