Growing up in Mdantsane township just outside of East London, Mpho Majeng used to watch – spellbound – as her grandmother magically turned the hops herb into a non-alcoholic drink for family gatherings, using a traditional recipe that had belonged to her late home-brewer husband.
Lured into the kitchen by the foresty smell of hops, the young girl became entranced by the brewing process and asked her grandmother and her mother to share the family secret.
Fast forward two decades and Mpho obtained a qualification in Retail Business Management at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology and started working in the retail sector, but her thoughts continually returned to her hoppy youth. “I loved retail and was venturing into skills development in the sector, but I was always aware that there were no non-alcoholic hops drinks like our family’s on the market,” she recalls.
It was then, in 2017, that the young entrepreneur returned to her roots; took her savings and started her own non-alcoholic beverage company, Somelele Trading, based in Mdantsane.
Armed with her gogo’s recipe, she approached Chris Heaton from Emerald Vale microbrewery in Chintsa, Eastern Cape, for help brewing on a commercial scale. “Chris was inspirational, saying to me, ‘I understand that you are a start up; pay me when you can.’ It is through these words and his humanity that I was able to start and continue to operate,” she says.
Somelele’s hops drinks are made only with pure ingredients – no artificial preservatives – and come in two flavours, original and lemon flavour. “Hops not only has health benefits, it has a refreshing hoppy taste that can be enjoyed anytime of the day; mine still tastes just like the drinks granny and mom used to make.”
Hops has been used medicinally since medieval times and today it is widely claimed that the compounds in hops have anti-inflammatory, anti-anxiety, analgesic and even anti-cancer properties. While some of these claims are better supported by research than others, recent studies do indicate hops is beneficial to use in the treatment of insomnia, hot flashes and even depression, among other ailments. The health benefits are part of the reason Mpho decided to brew only non-alcoholic hops drinks. “I wanted it to be a drink that can be enjoyed anywhere and anytime with the hops taste.” She hasn’t however, ruled out making an alcoholic version in the future.
Initially, Somelele’s brews were sold only at shisa nyamas, but then she joined the SAB Foundation’s mentorship programme run by business incubator, Fetola. “That’s when things started to change,” recalls Mpho. “I learnt the basic needs for my business, received grant funding, and one-on-one mentorship. This led me to expand into retail stores.” In addition to local shisa nyamas, Somelele’s brews can now also be found at selected branches of NicksFoods, Super Spar and Fruit and Veg City in the Eastern Cape. The business has also grown into a team of four: two employees and two directors – Mpho and her business partner Lindela Melani, who is the managing director for marketing.
2020 was supposed to be a year of further growth, but then the Covid-19 pandemic threw Mpho a curveball. “I outsource production to a microbrewery and, with the ban on alcohol, production had to close down, so Somelele was affected even though our beverages are non-alcoholic,” she explains. “We were also in the process of getting more stores in the other regions of the Eastern Cape to stock our drinks.”
The business is currently surviving on a small profit savings but Mpho is confident her budding business will persevere, after which she plans to start working on her next business goal: starting her own microbrewery and expanding Somelele’s product range.
Author: Melany Bendix