The Cape Herb & Spice Company

A 21st century spice route

Although South Africa has historically been on the spice route, staying there these days calls for some new skills, as Alan Swaby learns.

Asked to identify the product category where brand names such as Lust and Envy are to be found, most people would flounder for a long time before arriving at the right answer. They are, in fact, part of the Seven Deadly Sins range of flavoured sugar! But the imagination and lateral thinking that has given birth to such provocative brand names very neatly encapsulates all the reasons why Cape Herb & Spices has grown from a roadside stall into an international supplier.

South Africa is one of the few countries which still allows food irradiation. It’s done for the best of reasons—to maintain cleanliness—but it’s a practice most consumers just don’t like. As such, when Irene Ivy-Schuurmans opened her market stall in 1992, selling top quality, organic and non-irradiated herbs and spices, she found a ready market—first among tourists and then from local commercial users.

In fact, commercial demand soon made it necessary for the business to structure itself formally, and it wasn’t long before export orders began to arrive. Since then, business has spread throughout Europe and North America, with export markets contributing 80 per cent of today’s R100 million turnover.

The key to export sales is having a COA (certificate of analysis), quantifying the purity of the raw material. Managing director Paul Jibson explains. “We’d like to support local growers more but not all of the local growers have the facilities to provide us with a COA. As such, we import from the east, where herbs and spices do come with the necessary pre-shipment clearance. Even then, we carry out our own analyses on arrival and some customers even look for a further check before taking receipt of a delivery.”

One of the hallmarks of Cape Herb & Spices’ success has been innovation. Much of this has been in the fields of product development and marketing, but the company has also led the way in developing new storage techniques. “Being a completely organic product,” Jibson says, “it’s possible that the spices have been explored by insects. We’ve developed a technique of freezing the raw material which isn’t meant to clean it but will prevent infestation without affecting the spices’ characteristics in any way.”

However, the one innovation that has made all the difference for Cape Herb & Spices has been the development of the disposable grinder, which put into everyone’s hands the capability of having freshly ground spices. Most commonly associated with rock salt and pepper, Cape Herb & Spices has applied the idea to a vast array of blends and mixes. “Our grinder has been copied,” admits Jibson, “but as far as affordable, disposable grinders are concerned, it is still regularly voted the best on the market and comparable with many top, purpose-built grinders.”

Jibson is all too aware that the spice business doesn’t have insurmountable entrance barriers. Capital investment in its Cape Town factory is therefore kept to a minimum—apart from some simple machinery used in cleaning and sorting at one end and filling at the other, most of the work is done by hand. “It’s a process that gives us tremendous flexibility,” he says. “We have between 150 and 200 staff depending on season and can switch from one line to another within minutes or introduce new lines within days. The real investment in this business is in product development.”

Cape Herb & Spices accepts that its role as middleman between suppliers in the east and consumers in the west must be justified by adding value. The company has therefore worked hard to become a true expert on spices and their origins. It has a team of taste specialists constantly working on new recipes and blends, capitalising on the advantage that the built-in grinder has given the business.

At the same time, Jibson realises that taking on the market leader in each country would require a war chest far greater that he is prepared to fund. “To make any meaningful inroads into supermarkets,” he explains, “you have to buy your way in; and the dominant brand isn’t going to relinquish its position without a costly fight. As such, 80 per cent of our sales come from private labels. There are no additional costs for us and in fact, we get a lot of support from supermarkets.”

Wherever possible, Cape Herb & Spices tries to reach the retailer without any other third party involvement. It’s a goal that’s not always possible, particularly when language is a barrier, but these days, Jibson is extremely wary of entering exclusive arrangements, however attractive they may seem at the outset. “We were caught this way in the early days,” he says, “and found our product being sold at many times the price it left our factory. Either this meant we were losing profit or high retail prices were holding back the brand and making it difficult to grow.”

Now that the rest of the market has caught up with some of Cape Herb & Spices’ packaging innovations, the company is planning for the next major shift in strategy. “In a domestic kitchen,” says Jibson, “it’s virtually impossible to consume herbs and spices fast enough for them still to have their optimum flavour. Rather than a marketing bonus for us, we consider this a waste of precious ingredients. We’ll soon be launching a new range of smaller sizes at lower selling prices, making throwing out old products a thing of the past.”

Capitalising on its strengths in generating new ideas in packaging, presentation and mixes, the business has grown steadily and organically. For many years, the exchange rate coupled with low labour costs came to Cape Herb & Spices’ assistance and expanded exports.

Exchange rates apart, Jibson feels it’s now time to develop the home market more, so will no doubt be putting the Deadly Sins on one side for a while and turning instead to the Heavenly Virtue of fortitude, to win a greater share of the home market.