Mogau Seshoene: Building a Food Empire with Authentic South African Flair

By Elizabeth Anne Makumbi

In South Africa, it is common to find that the wife is responsible for making sure that there a tantalizing, warm meal prepared for her husband and in-laws on special occasions. The Makoti, which means daughter-in-law or bride in isiZulu, spends hours preparing the pap, marinating the meat, and taste-testing the tripe, all served with a hefty serving of spicy chakalaka and baked beans.  As part of the marriage tradition, the bride is expected to spend time with the groom’s family, learning their customs and, most importantly, cooking. It is an honour with great responsibility to be a Makoti, but this can be tremendously stressful if you are not a good cook. So when Mogau Seshoene’s friend was marrying into a very traditional Zulu family, she desperately needed lessons on how to cook the customary dishes. To assist, Mogau tirelessly spent two weeks passing on her knowledge of cooking to her friend so she would not be branded a “Lazy Makoti”.  

“That is actually where the name comes from, a witty take on the expectations that still exist for us African girls to merge the western ideals (education, wealth, beauty standards) and the African values that many times involve being custodians of our unique cultures particularly the heritage that is our cuisine. It’s incredibly sad to note but in South Africa, it’s easier to find an Italian or Indian eatery than it is to find a Zulu or Xhosa one,” Mogau explains.

When she realised that there was a gap in the food market to promote and celebrate traditional South African cuisine, the young chef turned her vision into a food solutions business: The Lazy Makoti.   

“We do everything from cooking lessons for groups, individuals, and domestic helpers and recipe development to corporate or private chef classes,and bespoke catering. We employ rural mamas, most times the bread winners in their families with very little formal education but who have already mastered the art of their culture’s cuisine, to give cooking lessons and therefore share and pass down the skill while earning an income.”

But Mogau’s story does not begin here. Growing up in a township in Polokwane, South Africa, Mogau had a strict but very loving upbringing. Her mother is teacher and her father a pastor, and the 28-year-old spent most holidays at her grandparents’ home with her many cousins. Although her first career was in finance, Mogau’s passion for cooking was a gift from her mother: “She loved cooking and baking. To this day, I wake up to the smell of scones or banana bread when I’m home.”

“Women generally lack the necessary resources for starting and developing their own businesses, especially black women from townships and rural areas. The banking system remains the main source of capital to start and grow businesses and, as a woman with little resources to offer a guarantee for a loan, it’s next to impossible to qualify.”

Mogau is both fascinated by and fervent about food and with this dedication is inspired to put African food on the global map. “A few years ago, I discovered the UNESCO lists of intangible aspects of heritage of humanity. These are cultural heritages in need of immediate safeguarding, documentation, and preservation to ensure they do not die out … such amazing lists of cultural music and instruments, regalia and art, and of course food. But on this very important tally is everything from Japanese, French to Italian food, but not a single African cuisine! Nothing. This very greatly disturbed and disappointed me. While the world endeavours to safeguard food cultures of the world, no one cares for ours. So I aim to celebrate and promote our uniqueness and hopefully one day get our own food on that list as well.”

Today, The Lazy Makoti is mostly self-funded but through the assistance of the Hook-Up Diner, an incubator that works across countries in Africa to promote and encourage entrepreneurship, Mogau secured funding for ZAR100 000 (about US$8000). With the money, she can continue to invest in her business as well as pay to attend culinary school. She has ambitious plans for a cookbook, a TV series, and retail of own-branded consumer goods and kitchen accessories, all with an authentic South African flair.”

Nevertheless, it hasn’t all been easy. As a black women in South Africa, the hardships associated with sexism and racism often intersect and are magnified in the business world, where the financial and operating environment are not conducive for entrepreneurs due to stringent regulations, policies, and difficulties with access to finances.  

“Women generally lack the necessary resources for starting and developing their own businesses, especially black women from townships and rural areas. The banking system remains the main source of capital to start and grow businesses and, as a woman with little resources to offer a guarantee for a loan, it’s next to impossible to qualify,” Mogau argues.

Alongside the administrative difficulties related to starting a business, the remnants of Apartheid also inhibit black female business-owners from fully succeeding.  

“For a black woman there’s a thing we call ‘black tax’. If it was hard enough trying to put yourself through varsity (college), even with the help of your parents, now you want to start your own, never been tested, brand new business. All the while, the family is counting on you to renovate or extend the tiny family house, put a sibling through school, or repay your own varsity debt. Most black South Africans have additional responsibilities to attend to, obvious results of the effects of apartheid and the deep inequalities in the country.”

In fact, in most South African households, the Makoti wears multiple hats. She is the mother, wife, homemaker, breadwinner, and cook. To find balance, women entrepreneurs frequently require support from those who have been through similar challenges. Yet, they find it hard to gain quality mentorship when a majority of the “big players” are white males. Nevertheless, the situation is slowly improving in the South African business landscape.  

“Yes, I do believe things are changing. Having noted all the problems that exist for women, there are a number of programs funded by the government and some private entities that exist solely to help women business owners.”

Even though there have been challenges, Mogau has achieved outstanding feats. Through the success of her business, she lives her passion and fulfils her dreams. She has had the opportunity to meet Oprah Winfrey and Former President Barack Obama through YALI, the Mandela Washington Fellowship. She was also recognised as The Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 Young South Africans and was listed as Forbes Africa 30 under 30.  

As Mogau builds her heritage brand and food empire with an authentic South African flair, it seems everyone is watching and the female founder has no intention to disappoint.

“As a girl from a township in South Africa, I never take for granted how my success is not just my own. So I have the chance to make my family proud and have every person from a township know and believe that it is possible.”

Startup tips from Mogau Seshoene
  • As cliché as it may sound, find your purpose and be true to it. I believe this is what has sustained me throughout my journey:  waking up daily and working to preserve and celebrate our culture through food.
  • Don’t do it alone! Learn the very important skill that is knowing when and how to ask for help.
  • Make time to listen to yourself. Pray, meditate, hike, gym, find something that relaxes you and is just for you and regularly spend time with yourself away from all the noise and expectations.
  • Efficiently manage your cash flow. Poor financial management often leads to access to cash flow becoming a challenge. Keep track of what comes in and what goes out. Hire someone to do it if you cannot do it yourself.

Mogau’s story first appeared in Women Creating Wealth, A Collection of Stories of Women Entrepreneurs from across Africa. You order or download a copy here.