When 27-year-old Uzair Essack saw his peers graduate two to three years before him, he never imagined that he would one day own a multi-award-winning export company that would gain him acclaim as one of Forbes Africa’s 30 under 30.
Essack is founder and managing director of CapeCrops, a supplier and distributor of fruit and vegetable to clients on the African continent and the rest of the world. He was recently singled out as one of the “men and women forging ahead with credible, creative and profound strategies to shape our tomorrow” by the Africa edition of American business magazine Forbes.
He was born into what he calls an ambitious family in Mayfair, Johannesburg. They instilled the importance of education in him from a young age and it seemed like his path to success was paved for him.
His mother, Shameela Minty, is an academic who would help him with his homework and push him to get good results. His businessman father, Ebrahim, taught him entrepreneurship and how to be street smart. At the end of high school he made his parents proud by completing matric with 7 A’s with mostly 90% aggregates.
Imagine everyone’s surprise when, in the years to come, he fell in with the wrong crowd and was swallowed up by the social scene at the University of Cape Town. He partied with friends and didn’t have much interest in university.
“I think when I came to Cape Town, I came here for the wrong reasons. I was going downhill and a lot of people wrote me off,” he says.
It took Essack six years to complete a three-year Bachelor of Commerce (BCom) degree. He finally obtained it at the age of 23.
Then, Instead of finding a corporate job after graduation, he took what seemed like the more risky route. He followed his first love and like his father before him he ventured into the entrepreneurial sphere.
This is where he would find his success, although the path that took him there was by no means straight-forward.
“I didn’t wake up one day saying ‘let me start a fruit export business’. It kind of fell into my lap and I just ran with it,” Essack says. “One business sort of leads to another.”
Just before CapeCrops, he was importing rice from Pakistan and India and selling it to local distributors, supermarkets, and restaurants in Cape Town. One of his contacts received an inquiry from Saudi Arabia for pineapples and Essack sourced them for him. After a few successful deals, CapeCrops was born. The company now employs 12 people.
Essack says that breaking into the agricultural industry as a 23-year-old Indian man was difficult. The industry is mainly dominated by white males from the age of 45-50 plus, he says. Getting access to capital was another challenge, because the agricultural industry is a very capital-intensive industry.
‘Don’t be too hasty in business’
The agricultural export business has its own unique challenges, Essack says. “I’m dealing with perishable fruit. You have to go through thirty to thirty plus days journeys exporting fruit to other countries. So, learning how to manage that and deal with such issues was also quite challenging for me,” he explains.
He got his big break when he closed his first deal in Qatar, one of the richest countries in the world. His revenue grew exponentially, which enabled him to expand his business.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned is not to try and go too big too quickly. With any deal I have, I’ve learned to take it one step at a time.”
Even if a customer wants to do 40 or 50 containers of business in the first year, Essack prefers to take it slow and careful. “I think its important to rather do things slowly and do a quarter of that and build the business up over the next few years. If for whatever reason mistakes are made if it’s on a smaller scale then. It will be much easier to deal with and to manage,” he says.
He believes his business model sets him apart from competitors. “When we compare our look and feel to our competitors, we can see that our business is a 2020 company. We are brand new and we have that Apple look: clean, modern and professional.” When you look at competitors’ websites, brochures, and logos, he says, you will see that they are 50-plus-year-old companies. He believes this up-to-date identity helps them take up a lot of the market share.
He advises aspiring entrepreneurs to “never give up. I lost my first big deal worth R1 million at 23 years old and I was a million rand in debt. If I had quit, then I would not have what I have today. But because I persevered, and I didn’t give up, things changed over time. Never give up and believe in yourself,” he says.