Ukama Kitchen Incubator opens for home cooks and bakers

Cariema Isaacs and Janine Roberts – both of whom are passionate about entrepreneurship and job creation – have started the Ukama Kitchen Incubator in Cape Town.

Ukama Kitchen Incubator opening
Cariema Isaacs and Janine Roberts (both in middle) with business owners who are involved in the Ukama Kitchen Incubator. Isaacs says the incubator aims to preserve heritage and culture through a celebration of home- baked and cooked food. (Images supplied)

Melissa Javan
Two South African women who are passionate about both the food industry and entrepreneurship, have opened the Ukama Kitchen Incubator in Cape Town.

Through the incubator, unemployed women can cook or bake in a certified kitchen, explains co-founder Cariema Isaacs. This way, the women’s products will be compliant with government standards and policies, and sellable in a consumer market. The incubator was opened in December 2017.

Isaacs, who wrote Cooking for My Father in My Cape Malay Kitchen, says the vision of Ukama is to transform home cooks and bakers who sell their products to support their families, into fully fledged entrepreneurs.

Calling them foodtrepreneurs (food entrepreneurs), she says the plan is for the cooks to reach a bigger target market, both locally and internationally, in the future.


A certified kitchen

Co-founder Janine Roberts says a facility needs to be certified by a regulatory body that inspects the facilities and certifies them safe to make food items for the retail market. “We are certified by Intertek and we are also halaal certified by the South African National Halaal Authority.”

Roberts, who has more than 14 years’ experience in the packaging industry, adds: “Women who work from home kitchens are not able to get their products listed in the formal retail market because of health and safety regulations. Retailers need to ensure they only buy from suppliers who work in facilities that are complaint with health and hygiene requirements.”

Being compliant means the cooks are able to sell to national retailers such as Pick n Pay and Checkers.

For the past ten years, Roberts, a serial entrepreneur, has focused on social entrepreneurship. Her company, Ukama Packaging Solutions, is a multi-stakeholder collaboration – a bridge – between clients seeking packaging services and micro-entrepreneurs providing the labour.

In addition, she established the Ukama Community Foundation, an NGO linked to the company that every day feeds about 200 children from Vrygrond in Cape Town.
She has received the Tony Elumelu Foundation Top 1000 African Entrepreneurs award, as well as the Spark International Changemaker award in 2015.

Behind the scenes

Ukama Kitchen Incubator training
Ukama Kitchen Incubator sets up equipment for, training and development of small business owners.

Foodtrepreneurs already have products on the shelves at the Ukama Kitchen Incubator, which they have sold to customers. “These entrepreneurs have products such as biscuits and shortbread, samosas, smoothies, traditional atchars and Cape Malay jams.

“[We have our] very own barista, who is also disabled and we really wanted to give him a chance to manage our coffee bar,” says Isaacs.


The money for the business came out of the pockets of Isaacs and Roberts, although the former says their challenge is lack of funding. They have set up a Kickstarter fundraising page and so far have received several small donations. “[Due to] the lack of funding our existing product lines are focused on longer-life shelf items such as pickles and konfyt [jam].

“For items where preservatives are required, such as our curry and pasta sauces, we’d have to approach a food technologist and the cost per product, per hour, per consultation is exorbitant at this stage,” says Isaacs. “We simply cannot afford it, and we would like to help these women.”

Writer Melissa Javan asked Isaacs more about the Ukama Kitchen Incubator:

Melissa Javan: You said you wanted to change the landscape of home cooking and baking. How do you plan to do this?
Cariema Isaacs: Yes, we feel strongly that our kitchen incubator will change the landscape of home cooking and baking businesses, because there are various benefits that are derived from producing products in a commercial kitchen.

The aunty who sells her biscuits in the community will always only have access to her direct neighbours, friends and family.

The foodtrepreneur, or business owner, has access – through the kitchen incubator – to knowledge and skills related to logistics, buying and selling, branding, marketing, recruitment, networking, accounting and the necessary business acumen one needs to run a successful brand and business. The same aunty is now not just selling, but she is learning business skills that will equip her to focus on profit generation, rather than on just making ends meet, collaboration and management of clients.

MJ: Are you still fundraising for Ukama Kitchen Incubator on Kickstarter?
CI: Yes we are. We’ve not managed to receive any funding apart from small donations and support from other business partners and brands.

MJ: You wrote a cookbook about Cape Malay cooking. Is Ukama going to focus on Cape Malay cooking?
CI: Many of our foodtrepreneurs had been following me on social media, so it was easier for them to contact me about becoming part of this initiative. Our intention is to focus on South African heritage fare, but we also recognise the current popularity of halaal cooking and baking, and it would be foolish not to capitalise on this trend.

MJ: Why is an incubator necessary for people who want to take their home cooking and baking to the next level?
CI: It allows for a broader target market, and an opportunity for the entrepreneur to market their products through a commercial and certified kitchen that complies with all hygiene and safety regulations. It’s also a chance to become a fully fledge entrepreneur supported by training, mentorship and coaching.

Ukama Kitchen Incubator products
Cariema Isaacs, co-founder of Ukama Kitchen Incubator, says cooks at the incubator will be able to export their products through Ukama’s commercial kitchens. Through the initiative, South African expats will be able to get from home products “the way mom made them”.

MJ: How did you and your business partner meet?
CI: Janine constantly has people coming to see her asking whether she can market or package heritage food such as jams. I was approached to help a co-op of unemployed women based in Bo-Kaap, who wanted to draw tourists to their homes for cooking classes.

I contacted Janine about my own product range, which is due for release in 2018, which may have included the Bo-Kaap co-op. Janine spoke to me about collaboration and the idea of starting a kitchen incubator. We put our heads together and decided to start a company and build a vision for our brand; in less than a week the Ukama Kitchen Incubator was registered.

MJ: What can people who join the Ukama Kitchen Incubator expect?
CI: First and foremost, we are a family, as our name suggests – “Ukama” is a Shona word for family. We work in teams while still being able to maintain our individual products and skills.

There are also areas that some newbies may find overwhelming, such as working in a commercial kitchen where rules and regulations apply, where we are pedantic about our packaging, labelling, presentation and hygiene standards.

Through all of this, we also have fun and learn from one another and we always praise hard work and skill.

MJ: On your Facebook page, you speak about your recipe swap with Sri Lankans. Are you planning to teach people at the incubator some of these recipes?
CI: Oh my gosh, yes! I think in my past life I must have been a guru or coach or a mentor. I love teaching and sharing ideas and learning from others. I am also enrolled for part-time studies at the International Institute of Culinary Arts Dubai to attain my diploma as a chef, and I feel I can bring much of that knowledge to our kitchen incubator.

MJ: Can you give us two lessons you learned in business?

  • CI: Being an entrepreneur is hard work, but one of the most gratifying roles I’ve ever had. Every part of yourself is in every facet of the brand and the business and that, for me, speaks of my own ability to adapt and transform.
  • Stay in your lane, don’t focus on who you think the competition is and what they might be doing – be true to your own vision. The vision should be your North Star and whenever you feel low or lost, that will bring you home again and again and again.

Source: Ukama

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