Mzansi has a new queen and she’s on a mission to put mopani worms back on the map and onto South African dinner plates. Her name is Phuti Ngoasheng Kabasa, but you may call her the queen of mopani worms, as she prefers.
It’s a title the 34-year-old wears with pride and does not take lightly. “Many South Africans think it’s a weird and disgusting food, but I’ve made it my mission to change that perception,” Kabasa says.
Her business, Mopani Queens, which she runs from the comfort of her kitchen in Johannesburg, was birthed in 2018. It caught the attention of mopani worm enthusiasts all over Mzansi. Although her company seeks to put traditional foods back on SA tables, as her slogan suggests, that is not why the sole owner started her business.
The mother of three is not ashamed to admit that she started the business after struggling to put food on the table for her children. “At the time my husband was out of work and we were struggling to make ends meet. Our three kids were growing up, school fees had to be paid, and food had to be put on the table,” Kabasa says.
It was a rather difficult time for them, and she thought of generating other streams of income through selling merchandise. Kabasa started off selling homemade atchaar to friends and family. After one of her clients asked why she was not selling masonja (a Pedi word for mopani worms) with the atchaar, Kabasa had a brainwave and started doing her research.
Kabasa was ecstatic when she discovered an untapped market to sell the worms as a snack in her area.
Instead of selling plain mopani worms, she took it a step further and researched how to flavour them. After countless web searches on how to flavour food and flavour-boosting tricks, she started experimenting in her kitchen at home. “My kitchen was such a mess and the spices were literally all over the place,” she says.
The first batch of mopani worms she trialled, Kabasa bought in Limpopo. She bought them from a woman who lives in that region. After playing around with the recipe, probably for the umpteenth time, she finally got it right. She then started trying other flavours.
The queen of masonja says although mopani worms is a known African delicacy, many people still refuse to eat the indigenous food type. “I wanted to capture the person who has never tasted masonja. My whole idea was to disguise the yucky flavour of the worm with different flavours,” Kabasa explains.
Mopani Queens offers a variety of flavours which include original salted, chili biltong, chutney and barbecue. Her best seller by far is the peri peri spiced worms. The agripreneur sells her worms to other traders at a wholesale price.
The queen of mopani worms also exhibits and sells her flavoured mopani worms at the Brownsense Markets. This is an initiative in Johannesburg which seeks to help black owned businesses access markets. The worms have also recently been made available at the Township Brands store in Alex Mall in Alexandra, Gauteng.
This year Mopani Queens started selling to individual clients in East London, Cape Town, Limpopo and KwaZulu Natal. “One of my biggest customers is an athlete from Cape Town who buys the mopani worms in bulk. She’s told me that the worms are rich in protein and she needs it as a runner,” Kabasa says.
However, as tasty as they might be, producing these scrumptious snacks isn’t a quick process. First Kabasa soaks the worms in water for about 12 hours to remove twigs and pieces of grass stuck in them. “Suppliers also use salt to preserve the mopani worms, so I have to thoroughly wash the salt out,’ she explains.
Once the bulk of worms have been soaked in clean water, Kabasa takes the worms through a marinating and drying process. This, the mopani queen warns can take up to 20 hours.
After all of that, the delicacies are packaged in bright red, yellow and green packages. “When the mopani worm is still feeding on trees it has shades of red, yellow and green. So, I decided to go with this colour for my packaging,” Kabasa explains.
Kabasa says some of her struggles includes access to trustworthy suppliers. “I’ve heard stories of some suppliers’ mopani worms that make people sick. Because I’m not in direct contact with the suppliers that I use, I don’t know what their facilities look like and what their production processes are like,” she says.
Although farming the worm herself has always been a dream of Kabasa, it is not as easy as it sounds.
“Mopani worms feed on a specific tree and it’s quite difficult to mimic the exact tree,” she says.
With more orders coming in, Kabasa has considered erecting a wendy house in her backyard to operate from, but fears that it might not be sustainable in the future.
The mopani queen says she wants everyone in South Africa to taste her mopani worms. “It is a great, proudly African food packed with proteins and I think every South African should experience this delicacy. I want people to be proud of this food and our cultures,” Kabasa says.
Looking to the future, Kabasa hopes to have a patent soon, which will verify her as the owner of Mopani Queens. “The concept is still rather new, but I believe it’s a great idea that has the potential to expand even bigger,” she says.