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How two KZN locals went up against the tea giants

25 April 2024

30 years ago, South Africa was at a crossroads, preparing for the country’s first democratic elections. At the same time, Joe Swart and Jonathan Kelsey were formulating a business plan in Joe’s mom’s garage. The idea was simple - make quality tea available and affordable for all South Africans.

While many South Africans stockpiled goods in preparation for the possible collapse of the country, Joe and Jonathan combined their skills, knowledge… and their names (Joe + Kels) - along with the little money they had - into building their fledgling business, Joekels Tea Packers.

It took them 5 years to turn a profit but they stuck at it, teaching themselves what they needed to know to run a tea factory and business along the way. They weren’t completely in the dark as Joe came from an accounting background and Jonathan was a qualified tea taster. However, they had to wear many hats in those early years - machine operator and maintenance manager, procurement and sourcing specialist, and salesperson - to name a few.

‘Old Faithful’ ...

Perhaps one of the best-known facts about the early days of Joekels is the cement mixer that Joe and Jonathan used to blend tea. Without big capital, they couldn’t buy fancy machinery, so they had to make a plan. ‘Old Faithful’, as she is fondly known, has now been spray painted gold and is resting and on display in the Joekels reception. She was used to blend Phendula Tips initially - Joekels’ founding brand which is now a favourite in many KZN homes. The Zulu word ‘Phendula’ means ‘To turn around or change’ - certainly apt for what the country was going through at the time.

So how do two 20-somethings break into a business dominated by FMCG giants with brands that have been around for near-centuries? With great difficulty!

“We didn’t just walk into stores and get our products on the shelf,” Joe recalls. “It took a lot of begging and persistence. Failure wasn’t an option. A few guys at some of the big retailers gave us a chance in those early days, and we are incredibly grateful for that. Without them, Joekels wouldn’t be here today.”

Recalling when Phendula was stocked in-store for the first time, Jonathan said: “We called all our friends and family and asked them to buy a few packs. We needed sales to keep the orders coming in.”

When retailers wouldn’t list another Rooibos product, Joe and Jonathan found an entry point through the first-ever kids’ Rooibos brand, Tea4Kidz. This is now the leading kids' tea brand in South Africa, and it was this innovative approach that won both of them an IMM Marketing Award.

30 years later ...

Fast forward 30 years and a lot has ‘turned around and changed’ at Joekels. While they’re still KZN-based (in an unassuming corner of Pinetown’s industrial stretch), they’re now a leading tea manufacturer in South Africa, packing the likes of Laager Rooibos (which Joekels acquired in 2003), Tetley (part of Joekels’ partnership with Tata Consumer Products), as well as the bulk of South Africa’s Private Label tea brands. And they’re still packing Phendula, a testament to the quality of their founding brand.

“It’s a real underdog story,” notes Marketing Manager, Candice Sessions, “and the business is still run like a start-up today because no one can afford to be complacent in these tough times. We still operate the business like a bunch of entrepreneurs thirsty for a win, and grateful for every bit of support we can get.”

Chief Operating Officer Natalie White adds, “We have all learnt a lot and been inspired by the grit that it took to build Joekels into the business it is today, and we know that without our customers and consumers, we would be nowhere. That’s why our service levels are some of the highest in the industry, and we only sell products that we would all happily drink and enjoy daily."

Co-founder Jonathan is still responsible for signing off these products, but now he’s not a wet-behind-the-ears, 20-something tea taster. He’s one of the most experienced tea tasters and blenders in South Africa and beyond, with a tongue and taste buds famously insured for R5 million. Joe also continues to lead the business with foresight and pragmatic optimism, and is a board member for the Rooibos Council of South Africa.

Joekels today ...

Today, Joekels employs over 200 people and is committed to giving back to the community and the country that made it the success story it is. Through its many initiatives, Joekels places a significant focus on the next generation, supporting children’s organisations and programmes, and running free educational workshops and programmes in schools around the country.

Asked what they would share with other budding entrepreneurs, Joe says it’s simple: “If you believe that failure isn’t an option, you won’t fail. You’ll keep pushing no matter how hard it is.

“And,” Jonathan adds, “When every door closes in your face, you’ll find a window.”