Godwin Gabriel has always had the gift of the gab. At 17, he closed the biggest deal in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, supplying food and beverages to a five-star luxury hotel overlooking the picturesque Indian Ocean.
As he recalls, it all happened in a flash: one minute he was a youngster looking for extra income and the next, he was sat across a table, suited and booted, having lunch with the food and beverages manager of the hotel and her team with only $55 in his pocket.
“I was scared I could not afford the bill. When the bill came, it was literally 55bucks. I remember sweating and I was literally getting ready to prepare to wash dishes, but it all worked out in the end and I got the deal,” he says of that meeting.
Then came the hard part. With no money to pay suppliers, Gabriel had to rely on his gab yet again to get the trust of suppliers to deliver on credit. His natural flair for business made his parents uneasy; fearing he would not return to school, they shipped him off to the United States (US) in an attempt to get him back to his books, but it was too late: Gabriel had already caught the entrepreneurial bug.
For the next three decades, that gift of the gab combined with grit, self-confidence, and perseverance would serve Gabriel well, driving him beyond personal and professional setbacks to create a business that would compete with giants like Uber and Lyft.
Gabriel is the founder of Moovn, an app that seeks to capture a piece of the billion-dollar ride-sharing market and that he hopes will eventually dethrone Uber, which, over the past few years, has experienced significant challenges. The company suffered several scandals and allegations which led to the #deleteuber campaign and the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick. In South Africa, Uber drivers have had several clashes with taxi drivers, some deadly, prompting the company to hire private security forces to protect them.
Despite these woes, Uber still has an imposing 74% of the ride-sharing market with operations in over 633 countries and a valuation of $72 billion. Regardless, Gabriel remains unperturbed.
“We are in our own lane, and before the end of the year, we will be a complete threat to them. They are studying us, and they know who we are. We know this because in the search words or key words on Google, when someone types in Moovn, you get an Uber or Lyft ad and it is something that is in their metadata. So they must have put our company’s name in their metadata,” says Gabriel.
He believes the key to any ride-sharing service’s success is taking care of its drivers. To avoid the mistakes made by other ride-sharing apps, he has redesigned his app’s user experience to empathize with the driver, a trick he learned in his early days in the hospitality business.
Gabriel’s journey has been a natural evolution marred by a series of ill-timed events. Like the time he came close to fulfilling his childhood dream.
“When I was younger I dreamed of being a pilot; I was actually hired by American Airlines to become a junior in their flight-training program. Everything was lined up to make that dream happen but just before I reported to the job, 9/11 happened and that was a wrap. I went back into a different industry and never returned.”
Then there was the time he was working as an asset manager. Gabriel had spent a significant amount of time building his expertise in the hospitality industry, acquiring an enviable clientele that included Marriott and Starwood hotels. But just when it seemed like the world was Gabriel’s oyster, disaster struck.
“It was a very strong area for me, but it wasn’t until 2010 when the aftermath of the economic recession was really felt and a lot of these real estate portfolios went belly-up. It was a really tumultuous time in terms of most industries and I found myself constantly working long hours and getting burned out. So, by the time the last assets were taken off my hands, I wanted to change my career,” says Gabriel.
The US subprime mortgage crisis that sparked a nationwide banking emergency left most of Gabriel’s portfolios in receivership. Portfolios previously worth billions of dollars were now being sold for about $100 million, and with that, it was time for Gabriel to yet again look for a new industry and start all over again. But luckily, he had stumbled on an idea to provide a cab service to the guests of the hotels he managed.
“Back in 2006, I started a luxury car hire business with a chauffeur in Seattle for business executives, because I had already made access to these hotels. It was a little side hustle that turned into a big deal. I went from a couple of cars to 15 to 20 cars, and I had to outsource a large volume of demand to independent operators.”
“It was one of those things that I was always interested in, so when Uber came, and they were doing what we did back in the day with technology, I said to my partner what if we had that technology when we were doing our business back then?”
For Gabriel, an MBA from the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business would prove instrumental in helping him to spot the potential of technology.
“Towards the end of my course, we did a consulting bid for Microsoft for an education software for two of the largest economies in the world, India and China, and I led that project. I was exposed to technology and I thought this was amazing. I had no tech background and never worked for a tech company before. I was just amazed at the margins and I thought this is the industry for me,” says Gabriel.
And that was how he began to look for opportunities in the tech space. He initially approached several developers to build an app for him, but getting people to buy into his vision proved difficult. So instead of giving up, he decided to build it himself. Hours of YouTube videos and discussions in chatrooms later, Gabriel developed a working prototype which he used to test the viability of his idea.
“We had the clientele; we had the relationships; and we had the drivers and so I sent out a little survey to some of them and the clients I had and asked ‘what if I created something like this, would you be interested?’ The response was overwhelming. At around the same time, It was also at the time that some of the drivers were complaining about being mistreated by some of these larger platforms, about not being able to earn a decent living and working long hours.”
That was when Gabriel decided that he would go the B2B route instead of chasing the consumer market that Uber was already dominant in. In addition to being the mastermind behind Moovn as well as its chief executive, Gabriel sees himself as an activist fighting to give the forgotten driver a voice.
Moovn differentiates itself by taking a 15% commission per ride instead of the 25% or more its competitors take. The rationale: if you take good care of your drivers, they will take good care of your customers.
Gabriel began by targeting hotel partners who wanted to book rides for their guests, which helped to drive revenue and get the platform to where it is today. Another way Moovn set itself apart is through a strategic alliance with Vodacom in Africa, which helped offset the operational costs of launching the app. Lastly, there is Gabriel’s personal touch which he uses to recruit his drivers.
“I was in the airport parking with my laptop recruiting drivers, and sometimes I have lunch with our ambassadors too. So being able to connect with people and speak to them and find solutions to their issues is where I get most of my juice. You get to hear things firsthand. This is where we fly, and we are different from other platforms. We don’t have to wait to hear via email but hear it firsthand and that helps us. Whether it is via improvement in the app or improvement in our processes, it is easy to make decisions right there and then without the hierarchy.”
The company already has a presence in nine states in North America with the planned addition of three more states, and an employee count of 150 people across its various divisions. The company has also expanded into Africa with a presence in Tanzania, Johannesburg and Nairobi. It is also present in Dubai.
The ride-sharing market has been plagued in recent years by several challenges, mostly from local taxi drivers who meet the invasion of technology with animosity, often leading to violent clashes in some African countries. Gabriel, however, believes it’s a matter of negotiation.
“One of the things I often say is that taxi cabs have long existed in most countries. Taxis cannot fulfill the public demand on their own, however, and they depend on the informal sector to offset some of this demand.,” he says.
And with that, the old gift of the gab has managed to successfully bridge the gap between the two parties.
Next up, the Herculean task of getting the world Moovn.
The Bolt And The Beautiful
From cheers on the track and field to cheers of a different kind, Jamaican sprinting champion Usain Bolt was in South Africa recently to launch his signature champagne.
Widely considered the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist who has broken records, is now breaking new ground in the business world.
He was in South Africa in January to launch a limited edition champagne in collaboration with champagne producer G.H. Mumm.
Having graced some of the world’s biggest Olympic stadiums, the retired Jamaican sprinter was at the swanky The Maslow hotel in Johannesburg, promoting the pink bubbly as it poured endlessly into fluted glasses.
As the $45 Mumm Olympe Rosé bottle was being passed around, all attention was on the world champion.
“In Jamaica, we do this naturally; we mix cognac with champagne, and it’s something I enjoy. So when we sat down in the first meeting and we were trying to figure out what direction we wanted to go with for the bottle and with the drink, I mentioned it and asked ‘is it possible?’ and they said ‘yes’. So for me, that was something I was happy about. When you taste it, you’ll taste the cognac and together it’s very nice, trust me,” Bolt tells FORBES AFRICA, aptly marketing his product.
The A-list sports star poses with two bottles, symbolic of the two years it took to create what he calls a premium drink.
G. H. Mumm’s Senior Global Brand Manager, Etienne Cassuto, says collaborations of this magnitude have to be a reflection of authenticity and teamwork.
“This is not something we created and said ‘great, put your name on it, sign it and we sell it’; he created this wine with us and that is why it is something that is truly collaborative and that is where some brands get it wrong,” he says.
“It took a long time to really get to know Usain Bolt… as an athlete, as someone who has broken records and who has surpassed everything in life to get to where he is today. This desire to partner with Usain Bolt, who is now a retired athlete but still pushing the limit to what he can achieve and really daring himself to go beyond to find his next victory… that is why since 2016, we have been collaborating to try and understand how we can build something in common.”
Bolt, who retired from athletics in 2017, has since pursued a career in football; he decided to hang up his boots in 2018.
His short-lived football career saw him play for Central Coast Mariners, and train in South Africa with Mamelodi Sundowns F.C.
The Olympic sprint champion says athletes should focus on building a brand beyond the track.
“In sports, I was always trying to be the best and do things that have never been done before, it is the same thing in business. You have to find things that no one has done before… As athletes, you should focus on trying to build your brand. Try to work hard and try to develop a personality.
“I think I get sponsorships because I have a personality. I am different, and I stand out. Develop a personality, a brand that people know, this is Bolt, this is Simbine, this is Wayde. I always tell Wayde ‘it is good to be fast and to be great, but if you want to build your brand you have to show your personality’. People will want you to be a part of their brand’,” he tells us.
Akani Simbine and Wayde van Niekerk are South African athletes.
And Bolt loves South Africa. “When they called and told me we are launching in South Africa, I was happy. Last year, I had so much fun. The energy was different. It felt like home because this is the only place I have been to that I have danced so much. In Jamaica, we dance a lot, but in Africa, you guys dance. A lot!” he says joyfully.
The whole vibe is that of celebration.
“Africa is an exciting market for champagne. African consumers want more premium goods; they want to really discover new things, new products, new categories and they want to spend a little more to discover high-quality products, whether it is luxury or premium goods,” adds Cassuto.
South Africa’s affluent market is no different, and Bolt attests to that – the man fast on the track and faster with his soundbites.
This Bioengineering Startup Just Raised $90 Million To Make Your Veggie Burger Taste Better
One of the ag tech world’s few unicorns is spinning off a new food ingredients company called Motif Ingredients with a $90 million Series A.
Motif will leverage intellectual property and facilities from its parent company Ginkgo Bioworks, which was last valued in 2017 at $1.38 billion, when it raised a $275 million Series D. Gingko is known for the ability to rapidly produce DNA for applications from microbes that replace fertilizer to ones that produce perfume fragrances.
At Motif, that technology will be inserted into yeast cells. The yeast is then fermented, as in beer brewing, except that instead of producing alcohol, the yeast creates whatever by-product Motif’s customers want.
These ingredients can be customized to mimic flavors or textures similar to those found in protein products like beef and dairy—a potential game-changer for the budding industry of plant-based foods, which has seen everything from burgers to cheese alternatives gain popularity in recent years.
READ MORE | The Foodies With A Drive For Business
Take Impossible Foods, backed by top investors from Bill Gates to GV. Its soy-and-vegetable-based burger still bleeds like the traditional beef version because of an added ingredient called heme, a molecule found in nearly all living plants and animals.
Impossible’s products rely on this ingredient, which is hard to source. But, as Jason Kelly, Ginkgo Bioworks cofounder and CEO says, Impossible doesn’t manufacture its own heme in-house. And that’s where labs like Motif come in.
“Instead of making another Impossible, we’ll be an ingredient supplier. We’ll supply the Impossible nugget or the egg-free whatever. There are many people who have branding and food development expertise who’d love to make new products in this space, but only a handful have the funding to do,” says Kelly.
“We’re focused on what you’d add to the existing supply chain to make it better. All these companies need it to make a veggie fish stick that tastes good.”
Motif investors include Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Louis Dreyfus Cos., Fonterra and Viking Global Investors.
Ginkgo Bioworks was first founded in 2008, based largely on research developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by scientist Tom Knight, one of the company’s cofounders who came to biology after decades of work as a computer scientist. Knight’s philosophy of synthetic biology is to treat it as akin to computer programming, and Kelly sees his company as being a biological programmer.
“We’re like app developers writing a microbial app,” he said. “And our customers come to us and say, ‘Hey can you make me an app that does this?’”
This is Ginkgo’s second spin-off. In 2017, Ginkgo formed a joint venture with Bayer called Joyn Bio, which leverages the company’s assets and IP to create microbes that can replace or supplement fertilizer for different crops.
That company kicked off with a $100 million Series A round with investments from its parent companies and Viking Global Investors LP.
Similarly, Kelly sees Motif as a company that will operate in the same way for food ingredients, and he expects that as Ginkgo grows, it will spin out others. “We want to keep, in many, many verticals, popping business up that have access to our platform and ask for specs in different markets.”
-Chloe Sorvino and Alex Knapp; Forbes Staff
Handcrafted In A Cottage, Bottled For The Globe
The sisters had no idea their love for healthy food would catapult them into the international food market.
Siblings and foodies Mosibudi Makgato and Rosemary Padi grew up in a yard filled with fruits and vegetables in South Africa and with a mother who could rustle up any healthy dish using produce from the garden.
It was only natural that they started a catering business as a hobby in 2003.
The growing interest from customers drove the business to become a success until recession hit in 2008. The demand for catering decreased because people had less money to spend. However, the wedding season would always bring more customers for the sisters.
That avenue led to the birth of an idea – to develop an authentic South African drink known in some black communities as gemmer, which is commonly known as ginger beer.
“We catered at a wedding and guests kept saying it would be nice to have gemmer. We did the gemmer and people were raving about it more than the food. From the response we got, we thought this would be a nice way to push it into the industry,” Makgato recalls.
With the help and advice of their mother, the sisters did numerous tests and were impressed with the 18-day shelf life of their product. The pair decided to introduce the beverage at a contact’s shop that sold scones – Vero’s Cakes in the north of Johannesburg.
“Gemmer and scones go well together,” 37-year-old Makgato says.
Business was initially slow. They would deliver bottles at the Vero’s Cake store and two weeks later, the spoiled drinks would have to be replaced because they were not sold. This led to them hosting tastings for market research. As a result, they were able to establish that some people had bad experiences with gemmer in their childhood.
The duo went back to the drawing board, and worked on changing the perceptions of people and assuring them that they don’t use yeast in their product compared to the traditional way of making the drink. This was a healthier alternative and it was African, which meant it did not contain preservatives, Makgato says.
“We would set up a table, put cups, serve people at weddings and funerals and have conversations about gemmer with guests or attendees. We would invite ourselves to women’s gatherings, ask to be guest speakers and educate people about food, in general, because we are from a green-fingered family.”
In 2010, the sisters left catering completely to focus on the beloved South African drink. They registered their company as Yamama Gemmer after they had mastered their mother’s lessons on how to brew gemmer.
In just two years, people bought bottles without questioning and business was growing. They made enough money to buy their own double-door fridge instead of using the one at Vero’s.
The business finally had assets, at this time, Makgato and Padi were producing from a cottage in Randpark Ridge, about 33kms north of Johannesburg’s Central Business District. The cottage was once a storage facility and kitchen. Now, it has evolved into a factory filled with gas stoves and pots leftover from the catering business.
“In 2013, things were becoming busy; I would always have stock with me, I would go to functions and sell from the boot of my car, and would have to meet people who wanted to buy at petrol stations. People were talking about it. Gemmer was becoming a thing. In 2014, Rosemary left her high-paying position in banking to do gemmer,” Makgato says.
While Padi focused more on the business, it boomed further and they moved to certified premises, with a full-time employee at the store.
“When customers come in, I explain everything about gemmer. Customers are very happy, especially after the first introduction to it, even those that know ginger beer are happy with our product,” says Lynette Seleke, who has been working for the sisters for two years now.
The sister duo has also established distribution channels, reselling throughout Gauteng. Managing stock at Vero’s Cakes was becoming a challenge, so they opened a store in the same area in 2016, located not far from a restaurant selling African cuisine.
“Every year, we almost double the previous year’s turnover since 2016,” Makgato says.
Yamama Gemme has catered at a number of international events in South Africa like the Sanlam Handmade Contemporary Fair, the Delicious International Food and Music Festival, and they also had a stall at the popular Neighbourgoods Market.
The appeal is in their presentation. They infuse the drink with fruits and herbs and sometimes encourage people to have it with gin or rum, turning the drink into a cocktail.
“We guarantee that you will not have a hangover because ginger beer is a rehydrate. When you have a hangover, it’s because you are dehydrated, gemmer pulls those fluids that you were missing in your body, that’s why athletes love gemmer,” she says.
Padi adds: “Over the years, the demand has morphed to include a ready-to-drink bottle.” The two have since shown interest in the international market and have rebranded, as they have qualified to export globally. They could well be on their way to becoming known as the ginger beer baronesses of Soweto.
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