JOHANNESBURG - The saying that a prophet is not without honour save in his own country seems true for enterprising businesswoman Makekele Somo.
Somo is founder and managing director of Elvema Nutrition, which she established in Johannesburg in 2011.
The company, which has a manufacturing plant in Hartbeespoort Dam and a warehouse in Roodepoort, produces and distributes moringa fortified nutritional products such as instant porridge, power shake formula and moringa tea, among others.
Their flagship Elvema Moringa Nutritional Instant Porridge comes apple, banana, vanilla, strawberry and chocolate flavours.
The Elvema Nutrition products which include moringa powder and capsules are sold locally and exported to 34 African countries including Uganda, Lesotho, Cape Verde, Kenya, Nigeria, Somalia and Madagascar.
“My market is never in Europe even though Russia wanted me to export my products there,” says Somo, who has been a businesswoman for almost three decades.
“I’m an entrepreneur and not a tenderpreneur. I have been in business for 25 years.”
She says her products are nutraceuticals, meaning they are scientifically proven to provide health or medical benefits.
“All my products are well received outside South Africa because in this country there is too much red tape, which is unfortunate.”
She says she made many applications to funding development institutions including the Industrial Development Corporation but to no avail.
“If I show you their responses you will be shocked,” says Somo, a certified United Nations vendor.
“They would say things like, wow this is a good business plan, come to us. But at the end of the day all that would amount to nothing.”
However, Somo says that did not stop her from pursuing her entrepreneurial dream. “I’m an entrepreneur, you can’t close the door on me and think that I won’t succeed. I have very strong ties.”
She says it is easier to do business in other African countries than in South Africa. “My products are registered in most African states. They have been registered in Zimbabwe since 2012 and that is why I have been thinking of opening another plant there, especially when I look at the benefits they are offering to investors.”
Somo says she has been approached by one of the biggest distributors in Germany to take her products across Europe.
“I have agreed to the proposal but I told them that at the moment I’m busy building capacity in the firm. But my products should be there (in Europe) around this time next year.”
Somo, who went on a business trip to the Finland capital of Helsinki last year, says she partners with local moringa farmers in most African states she operates in.
“In some cases I even teach them how to plant moringa. This is another way of giving back to the community, by teaching them how to fish rather than giving them fish.”
Somo, who did not want to divulge her age, admitted that she and her children who are involved in the business, all look younger because of her products.
“I can’t sell you something that I’m not using myself,” she chuckles. Somo admits that it took a lot of time to penetrate the African market. “We don’t take any chances, we do everything by the book.”
She says it takes time, passion and faith to start a company and that the African Continental Free Trade Agreement could help make doing business among African states easier.
“Why do we as Africans have to rely on the European markets. They will always look at us as consumers, whether you like it or not,” she says.
“But our African brothers and sisters look at us as competitive business owners.” Recalling her journey into entrepreneurship, Somo, who comes from a family of six, says she grew up in Naboomspruit in Limpopo.
“My father was a farm school principal and my mother was a teacher. The owners of the farm, the Steenkamps, loved my father so much,” she reminisces.
Somo says as she grew older she loved spending time with the Steenkamps and learnt the science of farming from them.
“They made me their business partner but I wanted to be independent,” she concludes.