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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