A Scoop of Sorbet
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.
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.