The private railway station at Capital Park in Pretoria suddenly turns into a scene from a colonial movie, complete with sound effects.
A locomotive noisily chugs into view on the platform, returning from a three-day journey to Cape Town. Liveried staff formally line up to welcome the arriving guests.
“It’s finally here,” says Rohan Vos, the tall elderly gentleman on the platform.
A hiss and a screech and the locomotive, complete with suites, lounges and dining cars, grinds to a halt. The Rovos Rail train has arrived.
A mobile stairway is set up for guests whilst staff collect luggage. Vos waits to greet the alighting passengers.
“Welcome to Pretoria,” he says cheerfully, shaking hands.
Receiving guests has been a tradition for Vos for 29 years, ever since he started Rovos Rail.
“It started off as a hobby I suppose and at the end of the day, I can only be happy pursuing my hobby as an occupation,” Vos tells FORBES AFRICA of his successful – and growing – railway business.
An hour before the train’s arrival, we meet Vos in the luxury carriage of another one of his locomotives with red and green velvet upholstery, and featuring classical furniture and glossy wood panels.
Rovos Rail offers five-star services onboard, taking discerning passengers to Cape Town, Durban, Victoria Falls and Namibia, from its hub in South Africa’s capital city Pretoria.
A ride on the luxury train can cost between R18,000 ($1,338) and R40,000 ($2,971) depending on the suite-options. Vos’ clients are from all over the world.
“Seventy five percent of our passengers come as a result of our efforts in getting them to South Africa. And that’s a very pleasing thought,” he says, proud of being able to contribute to South Africa’s tourism sector.
“Initially, we were living off tourists already in the country. But after five to seven years of operation, we were creating tourists [for] the country.”
A cross between a luxury hotel and a train tourism service, Vos says it took him a while to get it rolling.
It all started with Vos wanting to save the steam engine locomotives from being phased out and replaced by modern diesel trains. It was a challenge he was willing to take up.
Having been involved in the automotive industry, Vos and his friend at the time would collect old spare parts of trains and refurbish them.
He soon wanted his own locomotives.
He then decided to service the trains and sell tickets for each journey in order for it to become a lucrative business.
But one thing hindered the then 40-something Vos at the time. He had no experience in the railway and locomotive industry, nor in the tourism industry.
Yet, he attempted to sell both the experience of a train journey and inland tours.
He says it took the business five years to break even.
“I was petrified for at least three of the five years. The first two years were fun, settling down and getting to understand the product. But when we were chucking money every day, it becomes a bit boring especially when you run out of it,” Vos says.
It was a complete nightmare for Vos and his family. Luckily, his wife, Anthea, stood by him and raised their four children whilst he tried to keep the business afloat.
In gratitude, Vos decided to name the different locomotives of Rovos Rail after each of his children – Brenda, Bianca, Tiffany and Shaun.
“By then, I had sold my house, my cars and boats and planes…I had sold everything I could possibly sell to rake in cash,” he says.
Despite the losses and lack of sleep, Vos endured. He was determined to make it work.
“I had been my own boss since the age of 20, so to suddenly face the idea of failure was just not acceptable,” Vos said.
It was this tenacity that helped despite the naysayers around him. He didn’t care for them.
“I didn’t think we could compete at all but I was quite happy with that thought because I thought our product is so different to everybody else’s and that we have a niche and we must just polish that niche,” Vos says.
In 1996, the business began to pick up slowly and thereafter, started to attract more customers through word-of-mouth.
Today, Rovos Rail employs 415 staff, up from the 70 he started with. The company now runs six trains at a time; something Vos is proud of.
Next year, Vos and his team celebrate Rovos’ 30th anniversary.
“If you had asked me then did I think if we would be where we are today, I would have laughed, I would have not thought it was possible,” he says now.
Vos is the type of leader who involves himself in every aspect of the business, be it doubling up as an accountant, or even playing electrician and tour guide. His staff attest to it.
With Vos busy in preparations for the train to arrive, Rovos Rail’s sales manager Ian Morrison had taken us for a tour around the facility and the yard.
The teams keep the rolling stock in order, spray-painting the trains’ royal green exteriors, sawing wood for the interiors and also packing food parcels for the next trip.
Everything for the train is created or recycled at the Rovos workshop.
“Vos has been incredible in [creating] luxury in such a small space,” says Morrison, who has been with the company for the last five years.
“Rovos Rail is a first world business in a third world country.”
Morrison takes us to a museum where one of Rovos Rail’s first drivers is now turning his love for locomotives into a hobby. The museum has inside it miniature trains, tracks and stations, evoking the romance and nostalgia of a bygone era.
In 1998, Gert Van Vuuren started his journey as the driver of a steam train.
“My whole life, I have enjoyed steam locomotives. It’s my passion,” he tells us.
Five years ago, he became a pensioner.
“Mr Vos asked me to come back and build this museum for him from scratch, so now I’m back on track,” he says smiling.
Vuuren is one of the many who has seen the business grow to where it is today. In his office are old photos of him, in the driver’s seat of a steam train. He holds these memories very close.
As for Vos, at the age of 72, he still has enough energy to keep the business going. He plans to expand the routes into Kenya, Nigeria and Malawi.
“Wherever there’s a railway line, I am now attracted and I think [the] railways are beginning to gain traction again in Africa,” says Vos, signing off.
His train chugs out of the station, whistling and fading away into the horizon and the sunset to yet another dreamy journey and destination.
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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