Q&A: Lady Bonin founder shares her journey as a female entrepreneur

Jessica Bonin

With Startup Grind Cape Town set to take place tomorrow (11 May) in celebration of Female Founders Month, we spoke to Jessica Bonin, founder of Lady Bonin’s artisanal tea.

Bonin, who will speak tomorrow at the event hosted at Workshop 17, spoke to us about her success and struggles as a female entrepreneur, touching on how it was to run a food truck as well as venture into a seemingly niche market.

Ventureburn: Tell us about how you got started with a food truck?

Jessica Bonin: When I first started the business my greatest challenge was reinventing tea. People had no concept of good quality tea, let alone loose leaf, and I was selling both as take away before Starbucks was.

The caravan became an incredible way for me to overcome this hurdle because it was an innovative and new concept, that of food trucks, that engaged people and encouraged them to try something new.

The innovation and its publicity and popularity helped push the concept of quality takeaway tea as something easy to integrate that allowed me to move into other avenues such as restaurant and retail sales.

VB: What challenges did you face with a food truck?

JB: My caravan was the first food truck and I had to break a lot of ground for everyone else, this meant countless hours of meetings with the city council and representatives to open avenues of trade.

The biggest problem with food trucks in Cape Town and from what I understand around the world is trading locations. Because it is not informal trade it does not allow for trading in town. Space is limited and food trucks continue to increase. It is also very seasonal meaning summer time tends to be the best time for a trade.

The hours are long, the effort is high and the turnover is challenging. We resorted to doing lots of markets, festivals and private functions. The caravan has been on sabbatical for just over a year as we make new plans to hand it over to a small and driven entrepreneur.

People think food trucks are an easy fix, a quick buck. It is really not. And there is a lot of competition. Luckily for me, I wasn’t running a kitchen, I had something entirely unique and sought after.

VB: What then is your advice for those who want to run a food truck?

JB: I usually advise people against starting a food truck because the cons far outweigh the pros. However, like anything, if you are an innovative entrepreneur with ambition and tenacity, you can make anything happen, you just have to find the unique avenue in an over-saturated market.

VB: Are your tea leaves sourced from other entrepreneurs such as yourself? 

JB: 80% of our tea is sourced directly from farms. I try to avoid the middleman wherever possible, both locally and internationally, because I believe in providing a platform to bridge the gap between farmer and market.

VB: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced running your business?

JB: Throughout the business, the biggest challenge has been cash flow. Running a tea business means small margins, resulting in a greater need for quantity. We reached a point where market demand was exceeding our ability to supply, but in order to reach that supply ability, we had to scale, which means we had to expend cash before we earned it.

This has taken a long time to catch up, meaning money for not only staffing and raw materials, but working capital for everything that has gone into scaling the business to a point where we can reach higher productivity and exceed market demand, growing it more and more.

VB: What struggles did you have to endure as a woman growing your business?

JB: When I first started the business, people looked at the idea of the Tea Caravan and thought it was “quaint” and “cute” as if the business was just a fun craft project because I was a woman.

Farmers and processing companies are 100% male and have a preconditioned idea that women are incapable of managing anything to do with agriculture. Being taken seriously is challenging, and setting up long-term relationships in itself is something that ticks over in the long term.

VB: How is your business doing currently? 

JB: We are currently at seven staff members, six of whom are women. We aim to skill from within the business, therefore work with the goals of our employees to train and move them into different roles in the business as it scales.

Our revenue is increasing at a rate of 40% to 60% per annum. Our projections and scaling strategy should increase this to about 100% within the next year.

Featured image: Richard Gregory via YouTube. 



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