Geologist-turned-entrepreneur Brad Meiring uses an online delivery service in South Africa to get people to reconnect with their food.
Pile of empty wooden crates are ready for packaging, stacked up in a scullery. As the morning mist dissipates in the lawn, a pick-up van parks near the doorway.
There is an enterprising hustle and bustle between the van and the kitchen door. Men hurriedly create an impromptu conveyor belt offloading supplies from the van into the scullery.
The daily work rituals progress, and Brad Meiring, the 37-year-old founder of Munching Mongoose, casually engages in a conversation with the supplier.
From starting his business with 12 boxes, the online delivery service established in 2014, now dispatches about 150 boxes a week in Johannesburg.
Meiring sells customizable grocery boxes filled with organic produce, from fruits and vegetables to staple foods such as milk, cheese and breads. His business has a turnover of R450,000 ($31, 241) a month.
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It was a conversation at a dinner with a friend in Nelspruit that planted the seed of opportunity. It turned him from geologist to entrepreneur.
As a geologist, he had been against the commercial exploitation of the environment.
“In geology, it is about how we can put a big hole in the ground to make us some money. That didn’t sit well with me and that is why I geared away [from it]. You are very much in touch with the ground and so is farming. I suppose you could link the two. When I shifted from geology, I tried to get into the environmental field using that knowledge,” the entrepreneur says.
Operating from a pomegranate farm, in the picturesque rural area of Muldersdrift, 27 kilometers from Johannesburg, the calm of the place is an obvious contrast to the hustle and bustle in the economic hub of big city Johannesburg.
It is a contrast he sees changing with time, as people have become more open-minded to experimenting with healthier options, his packaged organic food one of them.
“There are guys farming on rooftops, finding small plots of land in and amongst the buildings. There are guys using vertical walls to grow so they are turning the concrete jungle into farm scapes.
“There is a whole farm movement where guys are just maximizing the space they have to make their produce. As the awareness grows, hopefully, the fast food lines will also start considering the produce they use to make food. This will give more options,” he says.
A grey hatchback pulls into the driveway; we look on as a man unloads two bags from his boot and makes his way to the kitchen.
“We have built amazing relationships with the suppliers and farmers. The deeper you go, you can just see the networks of guys who are just hustling. There is value far beyond what we see in the shops,” he says.
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Focused on delivering boxes in Johannesburg, the business has customers varying from the high-end to the health-conscious.
According to Meiring, high-end consumers are more accustomed to purchasing the bigger boxes because it is in line with their budget whereas health-conscious and dual-income families opt for more affordable options.
Grocery boxes range from R499 ($34) to R799 ($55) with various nutritional options.
Through his Munching Mongoose business model, he aims to create a difference.
“For us, where the real passion lies is being able to play our small part in getting families around the table. Getting people to reconnect with the food they eat. More importantly, it is to build relationships. It sounds silly, but if you ask anyone, some of their best memories are around the table,” he says.
Nudged by his love for family, relationships have become a core value he practices in the corporate space.
“Relationships are the business. Without them and without the people doing the hard graft and toiling, we wouldn’t have a business. I am not a farmer or artisan. Even down to the team; we built it slowly,” he says.
“The lucrative nature is based on who is behind the wheel and how you can run it as a business. The opportunities are big, and there is a big global mind-shift towards being more environmentally conscious, towards health and to understanding relationships and where your food comes from. There are a lot more people questioning and not just accepting what is given to them on the shelves. You can’t just greenwash.”
His subscription-based model is an experience different from grocery-shopping.
“Organic produce is still expensive. Small farmers have limited access to resources, and that goes to the economies of scale,” he says.
This results in higher costs to sell and purchase naturally-produced foods and so it’s expensive and inaccessible to the lower-income markets.
Although the organic food market mostly targets high-end consumers who have the means, every business should be open to trends in various markets.
Meiring argues that African markets differ from developed regions in the lack of infrastructure and access to support from local government.
“Digital adaptions for marketing and transactions between the consumer is a priority,” says Sigqibo Nonhonho, who manages the digital aspects of Munching Mongoose.
“There are a lot of systems that you have to come to grips with. Being able to understand the back-end of the website, what the customers will be seeing and the numbers (interactions) behind that.
“Having an IT background allowed me to understand that quicker. In IT, being organized is something that you to do, and in food, you have to do that too. In food, there is more freedom, you can be more creative and design your solutions,” Nonhonho says.
Gracious Nhloko, who has taken it upon herself to farm organic produce in her free time, administers the daily operations, and she says Wednesdays are her favorite day of the week because suppliers are moving in and out as they deliver the fresh produce.
“When different suppliers are bringing their fresh produce, just looking at those vegetables, sometimes, looking at the sizes of some of the produce is so amazing… It just brings me joy,” she says.
Meiring says that defining organic in South Africa is a grey area that has not been legislated properly.
At times, he has to cross-check that suppliers are being truthful.
The term ‘organic’ is often used in a broader sense and that is a complex issue that needs to be dealt with caution.
“In fact, often people have a negative perception when they see something marketed as organic because it is considered as someone just using [the label] organic,” he says.
Moving at a gradual pace towards expansion, for Meiring, ensures that quality and sustainability remain beneficial for all parties involved, and sometimes this means problem-solving is done on the spot.
“We are looking at other product lines. Adopting a model for corporate and office spaces and bringing in something for families… There are the meal kits for companies that are doing well globally but there are good examples in South Africa.
“I love the journey of starting people back in the kitchen, and we hope that we can evolve people’s mind-sets to get them to want the fresh produce. It is about expansion in a way that is, excusing the pun, organic,” he says.
“Being organic in the concrete jungle is a thing and it is growing… People are changing, and others are saying they don’t want to lawn anymore and will [instead] plant a vegetable garden.”
In due time, Meiring’s wooden crates will cross the oceans to New Zealand as promising global ventures are also under way.