In 1994, Joe Swart and Jonathan Kelsey started Joekels Tea Packers in Joe’s garage with just five staff members and one brand, Phendula Tips. Within three years they had moved into a bigger space; launched another brand, Tea Time; and won the Sanlam Entrepreneur of the Year award.
A quarter of a century and five factories later, Joekels has grown from 264m² to 1 1500m² – with seven renowned brands, a host of awards, a staff of 195, and the second largest Rooibos brand in the world (Laager Rooibos).
Joekels has also partnered with Tata Global Beverages, the second largest tea company on the planet. The Joekels stable includes Tetley, a huge global tea brand which is enjoyed in over 40 countries, and has made massive inroads in South Africa, with Tetley green tea becoming the leading green tea in the local market just six months after it launched in 2017. Joekels also owns the leading kids’ tea brand on the market, Tea4Kidz, and packs 95% of South Africa’s Private Label teas.
The origins and winding road
“The company started at a time when South Africa was undergoing major changes,” explained Jonathan – the man with the R5 million tongue. “Joe and I wanted to change things in the local tea market by offering all South Africans the best quality tea at a price that the regular person on the street could afford. It’s about exceptional quality at exceptional prices.”
As with every success story, there were a number of challenges to be overcome. From first listings and a lack of knowledge of the retail industry to repairing machines themselves – with absolutely no training – Joe and Jonathan have done everything to take the company from foundation to fully-fledged.
“We just had to make a plan if anything went wrong, sometimes working till 2am and then back at work at 6am – we couldn’t have the factory standing still with orders outstanding. From drought and resultant tea shortages, to challenging market conditions with very limited funds, and an evolving retail landscape, we’ve seen it all!”
Undoubtedly, the biggest hurdle was entering the tea market and going up against established brands with a loyal following: “Our initial aim was to build a brand and get offered R1 million and move on, but once we started, we were invested in our people and that was the game changer for us. Our ethos has always been to put our employees first, and we could not let them down. Of the five original employees, three are still working with us, with two others sadly passing away.”
The South African tea market
Commenting on the development of South Africa’s tea tastes over the past 25 years, Joe said health awareness and more adventurous tastes have seen a variety of flavours emerging: “South Africa has always been predominantly a black (regular) tea market, but now Rooibos – which was traditionally known as ‘the poor man’s tea’ – has grown, fuelled by an increasing awareness around the natural health benefits. The speciality tea segment has also developed significantly in choice, flavours, and ingredients on offer.”
About a quarter of the tea consumed in South Africa is Rooibos, which is actually a herb grown only in the Cederberg mountains of the Western Cape. In recent years, Rooibos has faced some challenges because of the regional drought. The resultant Rooibos shortage in 2016 precipitated a significant price increase, paving the way for green tea, which Tetley launched in 2017. This became the number one pure green tea brand on the market within six months.
Joekels also founded the first-ever children’s tea in South Africa in 2001 with its Tea4Kidz brand. This opened up the world of tea to young South Africans, offering all the benefits of Rooibos with added fun flavours, recipes and characters.
The man with the golden tongue
Jonathan, the company’s Master Tea Blender, is also the only South African Tea Master with an insured tongue – valued at R5 million! Explaining these expensive taste buds, he said: “We source our teas from a variety of estates around the world, and the taste of these teas can vary based on weather conditions and a variety of other factors. I’m responsible for ensuring the consistency in taste and quality of all of our tea blends, meaning that my tongue and taste buds are a major asset to the business!”
Committed to community upliftment
The organisation is dedicated to improving the lives of South African citizens, having donated products to a wide variety of charities and organisations over the years. 2020 will see the establishment of The Joekels CommuniTea Foundation, a consolidation of Joekels upliftment initiatives that will focus on four key areas:
1. Heart health: Driving education around heart health through Laager Rooibos – the only Rooibos brand endorsed by the Heart & Stroke Foundation of South Africa.
2. Uplifting the youth: Free parent/teachers workshops sponsored by Tea4Kidz; supporting schools and creches with Tea4Kidz products and information; supporting organisations that care for vulnerable children; and uplifting young graduates by offering internship and training programmes with future employment opportunities.
3. Uplifting Durban: Supporting local NPOs and charities through donations and sponsorships.
4. Uplifting local business: Supporting local suppliers and their fundraising charity initiatives.
Joekels 25-year highlights
• Launching Phendula Tips in 1995
• Launching Tea Time in 1997
• Winning the Sanlam/Business partners (old SBDC) Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1999
• Launching Phendula Tea4Kidz in 2001
• Buying Laager Rooibos – the second oldest Rooibos brand in the world – in 2003
• Tata Global Beverages bought 33.3% stake in 2006
• Bought Teeco and Southall’s from Pioneer Foods in 2008
• Bought assets of the Blenders business from Libstar in 2012, and commenced packing most private label tea in South Africa
• Nominated for EY Entrepreneur of the year 2015
• Winning Shoprite Checkers Supplier of the Year Private Label in 2015
• Winning Pick ‘n Pay Supplier of the Year Private Label in 2019
We have also welcomed South Africa’s favourite twin chef duo, Lebo and Tebo Ndala (@withlovefromthetwins), as brand ambassadors.
Asked what the recipe to success is, Joe responded: “We have always run Joekels as a family – with many staff having been with the business for more than 20 years. Staff, suppliers, customers and the community are all treated as friends. This personal approach is what makes Joekels unique.”
Jonathan added, “We are also able to adapt quickly to offer our customers and consumers solutions that meet their needs at the time. As JRD Tata, previous chairman of the Tata Group, said: ‘I don’t believe in taking the right decisions, I take decisions and make them right’. We at Joekels believe in always doing the right thing.”