Zimbabwean entrepreneur braves multiple obstacles to build food company

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By Jaco Maritz |

IN 2018, Lesly Marange had a lot on his plate. In addition to dealing with the typical hurdles of launching a business, he was also getting ready for the birth of his first child.

And if balancing business and family wasn’t already a tall order, he simultaneously enrolled in an MBA programme.

“I had an obligation to pay fees. I had an obligation to fund the family, [and] I had an obligation to run a business,” he says. “When I reflect on it now, I actually ask myself, ‘What was I thinking’, but, you know, passion sometimes drives you to do crazy things,” he says.

From prison camp to food company boss

Marange, now 34, grew up in a unique environment – a prison camp.

His father served as a prison officer, while his mother was a school teacher. From early on, Marange displayed a penchant for cooking.

Yet, in his community, a young boy spending time in the kitchen was frowned upon. His father, a war veteran, showed little enthusiasm for his son’s culinary aspirations.

However, his mother advocated for the freedom to chase one’s passions. Undeterred, Marange kept at it and even chose food and nutrition as a school subject.

He went on to study food science at Chinhoyi University of Technology. During this time, Marange found himself deeply engrossed in the success stories of prominent food enterprises, like Kellogg’s and Nestlé.

He took inspiration from the experiences of these company founders. “One of the biggest lessons that I learned is that there was a lot of endurance in their early days,” Marange reflects. He didn’t know then that he’d need the same kind of perseverance in his own food business journey.

While at university, Marange started a small business from his backyard, making roasted maize.

He sold it at prison, army, and police camps. Having grown up in a prison camp, he knew how these places worked, which gave him an advantage over other suppliers.

Roasted maize is a popular snack in Zimbabwe, but Marange did something unique: he pre-boiled the maize before roasting, which made it softer than what most people were used to.

“People liked it because it was different from the traditional way of doing things,” he explains.

Although his maize product was well-received, the packaging was basic. He and his team of about eight part-time employees filled the unbranded packets with a cup and sealed them with a candle.

As part of his degree programme, Marange completed a one-year internship at a sugar factory in Harare.

One day, the boss visited and saw his roasted maize operation. Impressed, he suggested Marange consider the corporate world after his studies to learn how a large food business runs.

Marange took this advice to heart. After finishing his degree, he joined that same sugar factory. In just three-and-a-half years, he climbed the ranks and became the product development manager.

In this role, he developed several successful products that boosted the company’s profits. This experience gave him confidence in his ability to make products with commercial value. So, feeling prepared, he left his job to start Glytime Foods in 2018.

Capitalising on a gap for healthy foods

While Marange worked at the sugar company, sales of table sugar started to drop dramatically as consumers became more health-conscious. Recognising health and wellness as an emerging trend, Marange saw an opportunity. His research revealed that not many Zimbabwean food brands were tapping into this market shift.

Glytime’s first product was granola, which the company introduced at the end of 2018. Marange had saved up about US$2,000 from his previous job which funded the initial raw materials and packaging. He began making it in his own kitchen.

After preparing the family’s meals each morning, the kitchen transformed into Glytime’s production space for the remainder of the day. At first, the young company could only produce 24 units of granola cereal daily.

Food Lover’s Market was the first grocery chain to stock Glytime’s cereal. Their first order was for three cases, which took Glytime three days to produce. However, a subsequent, larger order of 15 cases posed a production hurdle. To cope, Marange initiated a night shift.

Meanwhile, the MBA programme at the National University of Science and Technology wasn’t just aiding Marange in navigating business challenges. It also turned into an unexpected sales avenue.

He’d bring Glytime products to his classes and sell them to fellow students.

Rolling with the punches

Demand for the product continued to grow, and soon the supermarket chain TM Pick n Pay also started placing orders. In response, Marange upgraded to a new four-tray oven, which expanded Glytime’s daily output from 8kg to 50kg.

The company also transitioned from Marange’s home to its own dedicated facility.

But another challenge soon reared its head: inflation. Retailers paid Glytime long after the products were delivered, and by the time the money came in, inflation had eroded most of its profit.

Despite ongoing orders, Glytime at one point in 2019 found itself with orders worth US$20,000 but without funds to purchase the needed raw materials. Additionally, its small oven couldn’t keep up with the order volume, and there were six employees to pay.

Marange then discovered purchase order financing, a mechanism where businesses receive funds to fulfil existing orders. Old Mutual Finance agreed to provide US$20,000 of this financing, but needed some form of security. That’s when Marange’s uncle offered his property as collateral. “It was a risky move, but he agreed to it,” the Glytime CEO explains. The interest rate of the loan was high, and Glytime had to pay back the entire amount within three months. “I had no option … I just had to stay in the game.”

A selection of Glytime’s granola products

Yet, after obtaining the loan, more problems arose. Marange gave US$5,500 to an acquaintance to exchange for local currency. In a twist he hesitates to elaborate on, this person “lost” the money in the process, leaving Marange with just US$14,500 of the original US$20,000.

“I convened my team and said, ‘You know what, we’ve been given money by the bank, and of that money we already lost US$5,500 and this money has to be repaid within three months … the only way we can manage this is to make sure that we work very hard to … keep this business alive.”

The pep talk worked. Within three months, the team turned the US$14,500 into US$37,500. The loan, along with its interest, was repaid, costing about US$26,000 in total.

Glytime invested some of the remaining money to fabricate a much larger industrial oven which boosted its capacity five times.

Pandemic challenges to market momentum

Amid the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Zimbabwean economy took a hit, squeezing consumers. Even as Glytime’s production ramped up, consumers tightened their belts.

This meant Glytime’s products lingered on shelves, highlighting an issue: Glytime’s preservative-free granola had a shelf life of just four months.

This posed significant challenges throughout 2021. Marange began experimenting with natural preservatives, and by April 2022 successfully reformulated the granola to have a longer shelf life.

Shoppers resumed buying, and before long, Glytime needed to again expand its production capacity, leading to the addition of two more industrial ovens.

Earlier this year, the company also secured an investor. This fresh capital is earmarked for a new factory with high-end equipment from Europe.

Beyond granola and roasted maize, Glytime’s product range has expanded to 22 SKUs, including low-sugar cookies, rolled oats, raw honey, desiccated coconut, and a variety of plant-based vegetarian products like burger patties, sausages, and meatballs.

In Zimbabwe, these products are stocked in about 120 stores, including Pick n Pay, Food Lover’s Market, OK Mart, and Bon Marché.

One major hurdle for Glytime in Zimbabwe has been the inconsistent power supply. Marange notes that at one point, electricity issues meant the company could only operate at a third of its capacity. However, he says the power situation has improved recently.

Another issue Marange points out is with the workforce. He believes that many young Zimbabweans lack a strong work ethic, and there’s a noticeable trend of young professionals leaving the country for better opportunities abroad.

Tapping independent agents and neighbouring markets for growth

Beyond brick-and-mortar retail outlets, Glytime has expanded its distribution by partnering with independent sales agents. Marange is keen on establishing the company’s own sales channels and route to market.

These agents, mostly young people, actively market the company’s products at educational institutions, hospitals, corporate settings, and various events. Right now, there are over 100 of these salespeople, and they make up around 12% of the company’s total sales.

There are two ways these salespeople work with Glytime:

  • Agents buy stock worth a minimum of US$50 at a reduced rate, then resell it at their chosen markup.
  • For those lacking upfront capital, Glytime provides the stock. After reselling, the agents return the revenue to Glytime and earn a commission ranging from 10% to 12%, depending on their sales volume.

Glytime has leveraged its additional capacity to venture into neighbouring Zambia and Botswana.

Its products can now be found in multiple supermarkets there, with exports comprising roughly 15% of the company’s revenue. Marange aims to take advantage of the African Continental Free Trade Area to further expand the company’s regional footprint.