A range of spice blends incorporating the ‘miracle tree’, moringa, has opened new doors for two Limpopo students, Kgodiso Lebea and Jimmy Mohale. Their interests in health, wellness and indigenous knowledge ignited their journey as spice developers and they have even gained international acclaim for their endeavour, JK Foods.
“Moringa is a plant that people always talk about. It has great health benefits. So, we did some research about it and tried to figure out how we could incorporate it into our diets,” says Mohale.
Moringa Oleifera, or the horseradish tree, is known as a multipurpose plant with a seemingly endless list of healing properties. Originally found in the foothills of the Himalayas in South West India (Nepal) and Pakistan, it is now grown around the world, mostly in tropical regions.
Lebea and Mohale met while they were studying at the University of Limpopo in Mankweng. They first capitalized on the idea in 2018 when the duo was inspired to include the green plant into their diets.
After eating the plant raw, their taste buds could not stand the bitter green taste of the ‘super plant,’ likened to a combination of matcha and green algae. “I personally wanted to integrate moringa into my everyday diet, so I tried it raw as it is, and it was very horrible!” Lebea squeals.
As a home cook it was a no-brainer for Lebea to develop spices with moringa in it. Mohale, who has an entrepreneurial knack, encouraged Lebea to pursue her passion. “I cook with spices every day and figured I could create a formula with moringa where I could still keep the nutrients, but not the taste and the smell,” Lebea elaborates.
“It has great health benefits. So, we did some research about it and tried to figure out how we could incorporate it (moringa) into our diets.”
The JK Foods spice range is comprised of five flavours, including beef, chicken, lemon and herb, herbal blend and braai spice, which are all infused with moringa.
However, there is a deeper inspiration behind their endeavour.
While pursuing his studies in accountancy, Mohale joined the Enactus youth organisation, which seeks to encourage poverty-stricken communities to pursue business interests in order to escape poverty. He says that, seeing the plight of the poor in communities where he was raised motivated him to ensure that this would never be his fate.
“I did not want to end up like the youth that are unemployed. We started a company that produces something healthy and solves the unemployment issue, which has been beneficial to the both of us,” Mohale says.
As a third year development planning and management student, Lebea says she never thought their idea would gain international recognition. In October 2019, the pair was announced as the runners–up in the French South African Agricultural Institute (F’SAGRI) innovation competition that took place at the University of Limpopo.
“Honestly, I wasn’t really expecting to win, because there were people who were doing their masters who were actually in the field of agri-food processing, so they knew much more than me,” she says.
The prizes include a two-month mobility scholarship to attend university in France, as well as a cash prize of R 30 000.
“We want to bring indigenous foods back into the diets of everyday South Africans.”
The F’SAGRI Innovation competition was first established in 2015 and aims to develop a sustainable academic pipeline in food sciences in three historically black universities in Mzansi, including the Universities of Venda, Limpopo and Fort Hare. This, in order to increase the number of people with high level skills in agriculture. It further aims to create opportunities in the agri-food chain through interactions between South African and French students.
The agripreneurs source their moringa from a local distributor and agro-processor in Johannesburg. “We get the moringa from a company called Moringa World, who buy from local farms and distribute raw moringa to end-users,” says Mohale.
Mohale and Lebea develop their spices at Limpopo University’s agro-processing lab and run the business from a small apartment, which houses a small office. Balancing life as a full-time student and spice pioneer is no easy feat, Lebea says.
Their shared journey has not been without challenges. Although the product can be found in the Goseame market in Polokwane, Lebea cites a lack of funding as the root of their struggle to expand their operations. “We are still at the start-up phase, we have applied for different funding sources, we do things (like the F’SAGRI) competition to get capital to grow our business,” she says.
“Try and if you fail, you fail. if you succeed on your first try then that is great.”
Despite these challenges, the partners have relished their new-found success. “We are launching three new products; we are working on a sauce. All those spice blends are going to have their own sauces. After that we are also planning on opening our own restaurant that will serve African cuisine that incorporates all the indigenous plants that our ancestors used to consume. We want to bring indigenous foods back into the diets of everyday South Africans,” Mohale says.