‘After years of unemployment, I realised I’d rather be farming than in a cubicle’ – Loyiso Manga

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Loyiso Manga talks about the ups and downs of being the first black extra virgin olive oil brand owner.
Loyiso Manga talks about the ups and downs of being the first black extra virgin olive oil brand owner.
Twitter/@LoyisoManga1

After years of promoting his oil online and a national 'roadshow' that saw him drive more than 9 000km around SA to market his brand, Loyiso Manga is finally enjoying the fruits of his labour.

“And so it begins,” he tweeted earlier this month.

“The first bottle of Ubuntu EVOO has been bought by Yolisa Bala at Sandton Lonehill Woolworths.

“We live on all major Woolworths stores countrywide. Nothing is impossible.”

With that, the 37-year-old’s extra virgin oil brand started appearing in posts on different social media platforms over the next few weeks, with supporters snapping themselves in stores around SA in similarly styled images – the black Woolworths shopping cart in the background, and the strikingly-branded black bottle of olive oil in the foreground.

This kind of support is huge validation for Loyiso. It’s proof of concept: evidence that there is a market for his product and that his business idea is feasible.

It’s also proof that his dreams to one day have the title deed for the first 100% black-owned Western Cape commercial olive oil farm are valid.

The road to becoming a black supplier and industrialist is tough but worth it, the aspirant farmer says when he sits to have a chat with Drum about how an office job he got after years of unemployment led him to realise his calling.

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The Uitenhage-born entrepreneur has been promoting his brand for a while now – since before the Covid-19 pandemic reached our shores. 

And though it's been challenging at times, he's had some significant wins along the way.

When he first started the brand, he was buying crates of extra virgin oil from an olive farmer with whom he’d go on to establish a great business relationship.

“He was a really progressive South African and he showed me Ubuntu in the sense that he plugged me to a series of channels for labelling, bottling and packaging,” Loyiso reflects, before adding they have parted ways since he’s learned the ropes of the industry, his business grown and Ubuntu EVOO has started needing a farm with more capacity to do what he wants to do.

But why olive oil, which seems so niche? The idea actually took root more than a decade ago, he tells Drum, when the Gqeberha-educated entrepreneur first started learning about the health benefits of olive oil.

“I suppose it’s niche in the sense that I own the first 100% black-owned extra virgin olive oil brand in the country. The reason I went into this market, rather than wine, for instance, I was able to identify with it.

“When I read about the benefits of olive oil – how it helps prevent type 2 diabetes, how it helps prevent strokes, how it helps reduce high blood pressure – I could identify with it because a lot of our uncles and aunts suffer from these illnesses.

“So my business asks, how can we add value to people’s lives and bring out a product that is not like alcohol, that is not like shoes? How do we present a product that is used on a daily basis that helps add value and improves people’s lives?

“And that’s where the Ubuntu concept also comes from.”

His passion for the business, Ubuntu Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) is palpable. You can hear in the cadence of his voice that he’s euphoric about the highs of his brand but still frustrated about the biggest obstacle he’s faced since 2019: “I want to own the trees and the land that produce the olive oil.” 

The Rhini-raised entrepreneur who’s now a veritable Capetonian recalls how he grew up in a home where planting and farming was a normal part of daily life. “Besolusa.”

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“My grandmother owned chickens, cattle and the best of the best sheep. She had many dogs and we’d go hunting. Ukuxhela igusha, mina ndifunde [I learnt to slaughter] at the age of eight, nine. 

“I remember how we used to feel the warm blood of the sheep or the goat or whatever. I always remember that feeling of that warm blood and how it would dry up and it would become jelly-like.

“All those experiences activated the farmer in me. 

“And that’s why years later, when I was working at Old Mutual after years of being unemployed in Cape Town, I just felt frustrated sitting in a cubicle.”

“I felt so limited because I’d rather be in a farm somewhere. And I’ve always wanted to be a man of value, rather than a man of success, and I knew that I was downplaying myself.”

So he took a leap of faith, got a loan and invested in his Ubuntu brand – covering more than 9 000km in his Ubuntu EVOO national tour.

Having grown up in an environment where hard work was valued and farming was in his blood seems to have given Loyiso an advantage in this business. For starters, it’s imbued him with a solid work ethic.

“We could never relax as kids,” he recalls. “There was always something to do and the only time our aunts smiled, and when they said you could rest now, was when you were ill,” he jokes.

The work ethic his maternal influences – single mom, oomakhulu (aunts) and maternal grandma – had on him stood him in good stead to prove to the people he’d partner with on this journey of creating an EVOO brand that he had what it took to turn his dream into reality.

But still, the big dream – though more within grasp than it was a year ago – is proving elusive. “I hope this reception to Ubuntu proves that I can run a farm,” Loyiso says when asked how close he is now to the production of his brand.

“Since December 2019, I have been trying to buy a farm,” he says. But the question he often gets asked by those he’s approached for funding is: “Is there are market?”.

“Now we are proving that there is a market and an appetite for this. I want to be the first black commercial olive oil farmer in South Africa. But I don’t have R26 million for an olive estate.”

The realisation of his vision to own the land and the trees that bear the olives for his oil is vital for another reason to him.

“It’s been 10 years of giving birth to this brand,” he says.

“Being at a retail store like Woolworths, those guys have given us an incredible platform. And that’s why we want to rally South African to support the brand – to show those major retailers that small SMMEs and oLoyiso are proof of concept.

“We want to show them that when you embrace SMMEs, they can move. So I now bear the responsibility to market my business as proof of concept so that it easier for others to get into Woolworths or retail.

“But not only for them to get in, but for Woolworths to have the confidence that you are getting a small black supplier who is female and because oLoyiso made it, she can too.

“We want to inspire other people of colour.”

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