It’s early evening at a five-star hotel in Accra in Ghana, where a group of delegates from the European Union and Ghanaian government are meeting to discuss bilateral trade agreements. In the elegant lobby, an attendant mans the helpdesk, trying to resolve the queries of agitated guests who seem unimpressed with the long queues.
At one end of the room, a group of camera-toting journalists saunter aimlessly waiting for an opportunity to snap Ghana’s economic power brokers as they arrive.
Shortly after 7.30PM, the vice president of Ghana strolls in with his security detail and in one stroke, the lobby is bustling, flashes pop like corn and requests for sound bites are hurled in the air.
As the frenzy reaches a feverish pitch, we leave the commotion and make our way past an impressive art piece of Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, part of the collection of over 1,500 pieces of art in the hotel. Our destination is the fifth floor where we meet Bozoma Saint John, Silicon Valley darling and Uber’s Chief Brand Officer since last year.
Hired to turn Uber back into a brand people love, Saint John has a daunting task ahead. The company has been hit with a number of scandals and allegations which led to the resignation of CEO Travis Kalanick last year, and the #deleteuber campaign.
In South Africa, Uber drivers have had several clashes with taxi drivers prompting the company to hire private security forces to protect them.
On meeting her, thoughts of Saint John’s herculean task are replaced with impressions of her imposing yet warm personality. Towering at five foot eleven, even without her pink stilettoes, which she teams with a silver jumpsuit, braids and earrings made of Ghanaian Adinkra symbols, her presence is hard to ignore in any room, which can surely be an advantage in the male-dominated corporate space.
“So a good friend of mine called me to come to the Consumer Electronics Summit in Vegas saying they were having a cool kids’ dinner and he needed me to be there. So I stroll into the dinner and Arianna Huffington is sitting there. She looked at me and she said you are the most interesting person in the room right now, what is your name? She told the CEO of JP Morgan Chase who sat next to me to get up and she sat down and said tell me everything about yourself and that is how our friendship started,” says Saint John.
That conversation with Huffington (a founder of The Huffington Post) led to an introduction to Kalanick in Huffington’s home in Los Angeles.
“At the time Uber was going through a lot of challenges and she was on the board and she asked me what would I do. I told her about my experiences taking Ubers and she said you should meet Travis Kalanick. She invited us to her house and what was supposed to be a meet and greet turned out to be a whole day of conversation and brain-storming ideas.”
And the rest is history. Saint John’s list of qualifications, which includes the former head of Music and Entertainment Marketing at PepsiCo and head of marketing for Apple Music, made her the woman for the job. She is one of the few black women to land a senior position at a billion-dollar company. For Saint John, that comes with both positives and negatives.
“If you want to shine like a diamond, you have to be willing to get cut and there has been lots of cuts along the way, in small ways and in big ways. The small ways are about the micro aggression, the comments people make about you and the doubts about your talent; the assertion that your greatness is by accident. It takes a toll on you and your spirit and your self-confidence.
“So having to constantly remind yourself that I am actually talented at this and I do this better than anyone else. In the beginning, people will often remark like, ‘you celebrate yourself so much on Instagram’, but I’m like who else is going to do it? Then all of a sudden, other people start joining the bandwagon and praising the work I do and I’m like ‘I told you I was great’,” says Saint John.
The big cuts along the way have been the most life-changing for Saint John; like losing her husband to cancer in December 2013, four days before his 44th birthday.
“I had never considered that we could die early. It was only six months between his diagnosis and his death so it was not enough time to prepare. Our daughter was only four years old. After his death it really shook me. I was afraid because I did not know if there was ever going to be a recovery in my confidence. Not confidence in work because I knew I could do the job but confidence in life.”
But she turned what was her worst day into her best asset and developed a new philosophy in life.
“It absolutely lit a fire in me to say that, we don’t know how much time we have and I am going to be great today. I am not waiting for 10 years or 15 years to be great; I am going to be great right now. All the dreams have to happen today, not tomorrow!”
It is that philosophy that Saint John brings to her daunting role at Uber while challenging the world via her Instagram page to #watchmework.
“Uber is facing several challenges but I think the addition of Bozoma who happens to be black, a woman and an immigrant is a very strategic move by the brand to help fight some of the negative publicity the company faced last year and that worked. Obviously it helps that Bozoma is an accomplished marketing professional who has a solid track record with some of the world’s prestigious brands,” says John Tawiah, an economist in Ghana.
For Saint John, this is more than a job. It’s about sending a very clear message to three distinct audiences.
“The first is my daughter who I really want to embody for her, what a role model can be. I hope she is going to see the things that I do and that become The Normal for her and she will do better than I have. The second audience is African women and black women. That we can show up as ourselves and still succeed. We don’t need to be like anybody else and I can show up in cornrows, weaves and still be able to let my work speak for itself.
“We talk about cultural appropriation all the time so I find it important to send that message. We need to see each other and know it is ok. The third audience is to show the world that there is an inner intelligence beneath this exterior that we have and you are in charge of your own success.”
Saint John is no stranger to hard work and breaking boundaries. Her innovative ideas at PepsiCo led to the company’s foray into the music festivals and big deals with powerhouse celebrities like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift. In spite of the media buzz and speculation about Uber’s future, the lady who calls herself “superexecumummy” is ready to roll up her sleeves and show the world just how great she is, today.
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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