A Scoop of Sor­bet

Sobae

Indwe - - Contents - Text: Lisa Witep­ski Im­ages © Sobae

The story of Sobae is a love story: love for the planet, the love be­tween Mbon­geni and Thula, and – of course – a love of fresh, tangy sor­bet.

Bike-Based In­spi­ra­tion

It all started when Mbon­geni met Thula while both were work­ing in the fash­ion in­dus­try. Fast-for­ward five years, and they’d moved on to find jobs at an ice-cream shop – but both were dis­il­lu­sioned by the monotony of em­ploy­ment. “We were des­per­ate to en­joy the kind of self-em­pow­er­ment that comes from own­ing a com­pany,” Mbon­geni re­calls. To save money for their start-up – which, given their back­grounds in fash­ion, they as­sumed would take the form of a cloth­ing biz – they pur­chased bi­cy­cles rather than spend­ing money on trans­port, and also rode their bikes around Jo­han­nes­burg’s in­ner city for re­cre­ation.

“We were shocked by what we saw,” Mbon­geni says. “The waste from the in­ner city’s fruit ven­dors was ter­ri­ble. There were huge piles of it on every cor­ner, pos­ing a haz­ard to pedes­tri­ans try­ing to pass by.”

More than this, the cou­ple were con­cerned about the im­pact of this food waste on the en­vi­ron­ment. And so they started re­search­ing po­ten­tial uses for fruit that was on the juicier side of the sell-by date. Google turned up many op­tions, but sor­bet was the one they found most ap­peal­ing.

Mbon­geni and Thula were in­stantly ex­cited by the prospect. “In Sobae, we saw the so­lu­tions to so many of our prob­lems. We couldn’t imag­ine what life would be like if we were still work­ing for a boss in the next 10 years, but at the same time, we hadn’t found our pas­sion. Mak­ing sor­bet was def­i­nitely an an­swer – plus, it ad­dressed a ma­jor so­ci­etal is­sue.”

Dis­ci­pline, Hard Work and Ed­u­ca­tion

Of course, even in­stant en­thu­si­asm needs time to ma­ture. It took three months of dis­ci­plined bud­get­ing for the pair to save up enough to pur­chase sor­bet-mak­ing ma­chines. By Novem­ber 2017, they were ready to set up a stand in Mabo­neng – not quite within the renowned Mar­ket on Main, but close enough to garner the at­ten­tion of re­fresh­ment-seek­ing passers-by. “It was ac­tu­ally a great po­si­tion, be­cause we were with other artists and mak­ers. Plus,

sell­ing here helped build our con­fi­dence and learn more about what ex­actly sor­bet lovers were look­ing for.”

As it turned out, the first day of sales was cold and gloomy – not ex­actly per­fect weather for an iced treat – and Mbon­geni says that the flavours were a lit­tle too flaky to be considered ideal. What’s more, some cus­tomers were left plainly baf­fled by the prod­uct: Was it an ice cream? Was it a slushy? Was it a juice? “It be­came clear that we’d have to spend time on ed­u­ca­tion,” Mbon­geni says.

The cou­ple also in­vested in prod­uct in­no­va­tion. Draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from street ven­dors, who of­ten blended their wares into fruit sal­ads, Mbon­geni and Thula started mix­ing var­i­ous types of fruit to­gether, then ex­per­i­ment­ing with herbs and honey to add other di­men­sions. The re­sult? Taste­bud-teas­ing flavours like mo­jito-copy­cat pineap­ple and mint, plum and honey, straw­berry and gin­ger. Even now, flavour de­vel­op­ment con­tin­ues to be a pri­or­ity, with the Sobae team look­ing to mixol­o­gists for the lat­est taste trends. “We never close our minds to a com­bi­na­tion,” Mbon­geni says.

A De­li­cious Suc­cess Story

Within 18 months of their first sale, Sobae had been ap­proached by the or­gan­is­ers of the Vic­to­ria Yards Mar­ket to set up a stand and so, in Septem­ber 2019, the team moved to its new home. This marked a ma­jor mile­stone for the com­pany. Shar­ing ideas with other re­source­ful minds in what has be­come one of Jo­han­nes­burg’s most flour­ish­ing cre­ative com­mons, the duo also now had the space to use the freezer they had pur­chased with funds from the Na­tional Youth De­vel­op­ment Agency. This, in turn, meant that they no longer had to pro­duce their sor­bet in Thula’s grand­mother’s kitchen and travel long dis­tances while it slowly melted – which, of course, had af­fected the qual­ity of the prod­uct.

It wasn’t long after this that Sobae was of­fered a per­ma­nent shop space in Vic­to­ria Yards. With this comes the op­por­tu­nity to ob­tain the nec­es­sary per­mits to es­tab­lish Sobae as a sus­tain­able busi­ness con­cern – and Mbon­geni and Thula have wasted no time in giv­ing the com­pany the ca­pac­ity it needs to grow by hir­ing two em­ploy­ees. Of course, they’re rel­ish­ing the ad­di­tional time they have to de­vote to prod­uct de­vel­op­ment, but they’re even more pleased that they’re able to play a part in up­lift­ing mem­bers of the com­mu­nity. As Mbon­geni says, they’ve been through the strug­gle, and they know the magic that can arise when your stage be­comes big enough to present dif­fer­ent op­tions – op­tions that could change your life.

What is it that made Sobae grow from a fledgeling scoop cen­tre into one of the city’s best-loved ar­ti­sanal brands? “I think that peo­ple be­lieve in what we have to of­fer. They can taste the au­then­tic­ity of a prod­uct that’s made with­out any ad­di­tives or sugar and they love the story of my re­la­tion­ship with Thula. But more than any­thing, I think it’s our link to the in­ner city, and how we’re try­ing to im­prove it, that re­ally res­onates.”

Draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from street ven­dors, who of­ten blended their wares into fruit sal­ads, Mbon­geni and Thula started mix­ing var­i­ous types of fruit to­gether, then ex­per­i­ment­ing with herbs and honey to add other di­men­sions.

Sobae sor­bet is made with fruit from Jo­han­nes­burg’s in­ner city ven­dors.

Sobae founders Thula Ndema and Mbon­geni Ma­sondo.

The one time mar­ket stall has now found a new home in its Vic­to­ria Yards shop.

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