For someone who has been a bona fide superstar on the African continent for well over two decades, Yvonne Chaka Chaka is strangely the most approachable person I have ever met, with few airs and graces.
She is the opposite of a spoilt superstar; instead, she has this quality of mothering everyone around her. A couple of times during my one-on-one interview with her, she picks the most inopportune moment to ask whether I’m hungry and proceeds to offer me some pasta and mince.
We meet Chaka Chaka at her home in the wealthy suburb of Bryanston in the north of Johannesburg. We are not the only crew here; there is a team from a popular showbiz magazine wrapping up a shoot with her. One of her many assistants tells us that she has another two more interviews later. So how is it that this 46-year-old mother of four boys has managed to remain relevant, in demand and adored in this very fickle entertainment industry?
“I have just never bought into this notion that the music and entertainment industry are all ‘sex, drugs and rock-’n-roll’. I was raised to always maintain a sense of pride and to be responsible at all times. From the first moment after I was discovered, all I ever wanted to do was to make it big so I could uproot my family out of poverty. My mother, who was a domestic worker at that point, wanted me to get a law degree and be very successful. She didn’t approve of me being a singer. She had higher expectations,” she says.
Chaka Chaka’s debut album, I’m in Love with a DJ, sold more than 35,000 copies in two weeks back in 1985. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Chaka Chaka was to belt out iconic hits such as Umqombothi (African beer), Burning Up, Thank You, Mister DJ and Who’s the Boss?, among many other hits. Her songs are a soundtrack to many an African childhood, and she has performed in all corners of the African continent.
“I knew I was becoming really successful when everyone started comparing me to Brenda Fassie, who had started singing in 1981 and was the epitome of success at that time. Everybody started noticing me. My gig calendar went crazy and I could finally build my mother the three-bedroom house she wanted. I also started singing for serious company like former President Nelson Mandela, kings, queens and the world’s most important people,” she says proudly.
On the walls of her home, there are countless gongs, awards, trophies, certificates and picture portraits of her flanked by people straight from a name-dropper’s fantasy. Alongside them are many magazine covers and framed platinum-certified discs. The most refreshing aspect about Chaka Chaka’s career, though, is that it has been far from one-dimensional. She has managed to balance performing with getting an impressive higher education, being an entrepreneur and doing high-level philanthropy. It is her entrepreneurship that I am interested in, mainly because we have all heard the painful tale of beloved musicians dying as paupers.
“I started my first business in 1987. It was a hair salon based at the Carlton Centre shopping mall in the CBD of Johannesburg. It was called Le Classique and it was ahead of its time in the way it offered services. The salon had a separate wing where our VIP and celebrity clientele could come in and have private consultations, be pampered without the glare of the public, without delay or having to wait in queues. Le Classique was also one of the few salons at that time that had a multiracial client base,” she explains. The success of Le Classique led to Chaka Chaka opening another beauty salon on Kruis Street—just down the road from the Carlton Centre. “I opened my second salon in 1989. It was called Vonny’s 7th Heaven and it too was wildly successful. The two salons had a very good run until the steep escalation of crime in the CBD forced us to close shop,” she says.
These mishaps may have pushed Chaka Chaka away from the hair and beauty industry, but the business bug had bitten. In 1992, Chaka Chaka opened a limousine business.
“My husband and I bought a few limos and a couple of luxury American cars and started Byandlani Limousine Services. We realised that there was an influx of tourists coming to our shores as the political climate changed, so we jumped on the bandwagon. We hired drivers who would be based at the airport ready to pick up tourists and take them sightseeing, on tours or to wherever their destinations were,” she says.
Chaka Chaka also used her industry connections to boost her limo business’ image and they were chosen to transport Michael Jackson during his South African tour.
A few years later, legislation around how public transportation entities operate was changed, so Chaka Chaka decided to sell the cars and cut her losses.
“The cars were American, so they were a left-hand drive and we were always given grief about that. The business had also started doing badly at that point, so it made sense to just move on to something else,” she says.
Soon after the dissolution of Byandlani Limousine Services, Chaka Chaka then bought a house in Berea, downtown Johannesburg that she converted into offices for hire and a rehearsal venue for herself and other musicians.
“The house was a very popular rehearsal venue. You name any artist that was big during that period, and they were most likely also rehearsing with us. Bands like Sankomota and Stimela, as well as solo artists like Tshepo Tshola, Sibongile Khumalo and Hugh Masekela were among our clients,” she says.
Once again, crime became the thorn in her side and forced Chaka Chaka to think twice about the location of her business. “We got burgled way too many times. Our clients’ cars got hijacked and it quite simply became unpleasant. So we donated the house to a local church and once again shifted focus,” she says. This is the point where Chaka Chaka set her sights on the corporate world.
Her first major move was to buy into Gestetner—a company that produces printing machines.
“Buying into Gestetner surprised a lot of people. It was during the period where BEE (black economic empowerment) was the buzzword, so some even thought I was brought in to be ‘the token black’. People just didn’t understand why or how a singer could also feature in the corporate space,” she says.
Her move into corporate South Africa has flourished. Right now, she owns shares and sits on the board of JSE-listed Morvest Business Group, an IT company, as well as on the boards of many Section 21 companies like the African Women’s Development Board, Shalamuka Board, Sonke Skills Development and Women in Energy. Chaka Chaka also owns shares in major companies such as Media 24, Sasol and Telkom.
Even with such an impressive business portfolio, it is practically impossible to sit with Chaka Chaka and not notice that the thing that’s closest to her heart is her charity work. “I have just come back from Vietnam and Kenya, where I have been involved in a campaign started by the World Health Organization (WHO) along with The Global Fund and (international police agency) Interpol. The campaign aims to create awareness around fake medication, counterfeit ARVs and other drugs meant to treat dreaded diseases such as tuberculosis. I am the face of that campaign alongside fellow musician Youssou N’dour,” she says.
Chaka Chaka is also a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, and hints at the fact that unlike her other UN ambassador colleagues, such as movie star Angelina Jolie, she goes further than attending a UN press conference to just smile and wave.
“I have a passion for going to the grassroots and helping people who literally have nothing. I recently travelled to the most remote villages of Africa and shot a documentary highlighting the extreme plight of the people who live there in the hope that once it gets flighted on television, someone somewhere will do something to help these people who are so extremely disadvantaged.”
Chaka Chaka has also adopted Lethare High School in Jabulani Township in Soweto, where she has a program that supports the needy and sponsors a number of them through university.
“Lethare is the same school that I attended growing up. So knowing that community as intimately as I do, I knew that I had to do something to help, something to give back as they are behind my musical success. There are a few kids there whom we have taken to university, and in the next five years, I am making plans with Lethare’s principal to broaden this program so that there isn’t a child we cannot help,” she says.
With so much on Chaka Chaka’s plate, it is amazing that she finds time for everyone else in her life. But as I sit in her home, I realize that somehow it has been possible for this remarkable woman to raise great kids, keep her music career afloat and go from strength to strength in her business life. She is not about to slow down—she is currently shooting a musical with Leleti Khumalo (of Sarafina! fame) and Luthuli Dlamini, and going into studio to record a new album that will be released in 2012 through her own company, Chaka Chaka Promotions.
As I drive out of her home, I see a Lifebuoy soap billboard with her face on it—she is there too.
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.
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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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