A chance encounter almost four years ago transformed the life of Ikarabele Legae (26) from Diepkloof in Soweto. Today his fruit export business is making inroads in markets across the globe.
At the time, Legae had just moved from China to Cape Town. A scholarship which enabled him to pursue a degree in international business and trade at the ShanghaiJiao Tong University had fallen through, closing that path to him.
A disappointed Legae started thinking of business ideas and decided to start a tech company in 2016.
“I had a friend in China who used to translate content for a portal called Progress Report. He used to take English trade data and translate it into Chinese. So, what I realised from his work at the time was that South Africa didn’t necessarily have the right trade access into China. So, I created my tech company to connect Chinese suppliers of farming machinery with South African farmers,” he says.
Six months into his business it failed because, he says, he didn’t have a clear framework of where he wanted the business to go. In November of the same year, he had a meeting with his developer in a coffee shop in Cape Town to try and salvage his business.
Fortunately for him he encountered a South African vegetable exporter who helped change his future.
Encounter with fruit exporter that changed his life
“I was in a meeting in a coffee shop with one of my developers. Seated at the table next to me was a white woman and a white guy. These guys were laughing and having a good time and the whole coffee shop was watching them. I too got distracted and started staring at them”.
“I heard their conversation, and they were chatting about exporting tomatoes from South Africa into Zambia because there had been a tomato shortage in Zambia at the time. I was like, this is absolutely the coolest thing I’ve ever heard and remembering the stuff that I learned from the progress report I was like, this is what I want to do.”
Legae approached the pair, greeted them and told the man, who introduced himself as Patrick Hughes, that he wants to do what they are doing. He proceeded to ask for his business card and Hughes said he was quite rude for listening in on their conversation but commended him for his bravery.
He gave Legae his business card. Legae then pestered him for weeks until he agreed to have a beer with him.
“He told me he had a company called Regent Produce South Africa based in Durbanville that exported fruit and vegetables to global markets. He also had a stake in a farm in Egypt where he was importing garlic into South Africa to service the big retail companies.
“He told me what equipment I needed to buy to get my business off the ground and I left Cape Town to officially start my Humble Fruit business in Johannesburg in 2017.”
Starting his own fruit business in Jozi
Legae says he had no experience and over the next couple of months he would visit the Joburg market to buy fruit and he would take four taxis from Soweto each morning to sell his produce in town.
The following year he decided to scale up his fruit selling business and look into exporting to global markets.
“At that time, there hadn’t been any black exporter in South Africa at all and I thought, well, commercially there’s a way to drive this story.”
“I could act as a middleman and connect South African fruit growers with retail companies abroad,” he says.
Fortunately for him he had contacts and networks from China and his clientele grew from there.
“I would tell my clients that I have this particular fruit, it is not the best quality but it’s getting there. I would ask them would you be able to pay us a premium for this fruit and will you be able to pay us earlier than you pay anyone else?”
Legae says his clients would agree because they are not just market oriented, they are willing to go the extra mile to market this fruit and to get South African fruit producers exposure into the EU market.
Once his clients agree he would go back to the growers and say “we have got these buyers who are willing to pay you earlier. They are willing to pay you a premium for your fruit, but you don’t have the pressure of producing the highest quality fruit.”
Legae has been running Humble Fruit for the past three years. He also became a member of the Fresh Produce Exporters Forum (FPEF) in 2019, aimed at developing black exporters and producers to be globally competitive by providing exposure to the technical aspects of fruit trade in 2019.
As a transformation representative at the forum, he has assisted in drafting the fruit SA strategy on the future of black producers and exporters in the SA fruit value chain.