Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|June 2, 2022|6 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

You aint nothing but a corndog!

It may be nothing but a corn dog, but it has made an emerging South African entrepreneur a growing fortune on the back of  major capital raise.

It may be nothing but a corn dog, but it has made an emerging South African entrepreneur a growing fortune on the back of  major capital raise.

It was an idea born in the mind of Mabel Akinlabi at her  daughter’s 11th birthday- the idea of a sausage on a stick dipped in batter and fried. It led to months of experimentation, determination and hard work, that helped a husband-and-wife team from Johannesburg to build a frozen convenience food business.

Mabel and Wale  Akinlabi now supply their Browns Corn Dogs to more than 100 Checkers stores around South Africa, the journey to this milestone started humbly – in their kitchen.

“During our daughter’s 11th birthday party I yanked out corn dogs that I was making. The kids loved these things, and I asked them all: ‘If we make these would you ask your parents to buy you some?’ and the answer was an emphatic ‘Yes!’,” says Mabel.

They founded Browns Foods, in 2019, with the single corn dog product. While testing and perfecting their recipe, they approached the Shoprite Group and struck a deal with buyer Promise Mpele.

“Promise said that they try their best to support young black business, and they really, really, have. He held our hand the whole way and took us through the entire process,” says Wale.

The venture also raised a pile of capital from the Small Enterprise Finance Agency – a subsidiary of the Industrial Development Corporation. It supports emerging entrepreneurs.

“I applied for funding with Sefa. and  out of my funding, 10% of it was given to me as a grant, so I don’t have to pay 10% of it back. And it’s because I am black, and I am female, and I was under the age of 35. All benefits that I wouldn’t have gotten, obviously, if I was Caucasian,” she says.

“I applied for R12,5 million in funding, and we have to pay back on R10 million, so R2.5 was a grant,  the funding, it constituted a lots of different things, working capital, equipment and raw materials, and with just grant itself, we were able to cover salaries for me and for my staff of 37 for several months. I didn’t have to pay back the money on that. So I’m paying back on the equipment and raw materials.”

The couple, who both worked  in broadcasting, were entirely new to food production and retail. Because of this, they had a raft of questions for their buyer from pricing to product development.

“We asked what pricing would be fair, we wanted to find out what regions we should go into, what distributors we should use, do they like our packaging, what do consumers like… Information that we could’ve learnt painfully, but our buyer held our hands through the process,” says Mabel.

From a single corn dog made and served  on a chopstick, the two then built up their business over the course of a year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. They imported equipment from the United States, set up a factory, and refined the recipe.

Getting the corn dogs to market took plenty of hard work, grit, determination and positivity.

“Retail is a whole new sector for us. We now love it, and we’ve learnt a whole lot, but it’s been challenging. We’ve been received really well by the public,” says Mabel.

The work paid off, and by the end of 2020 they were able to supply more than 100 Checkers stores with their now famous corn dogs.

“Kids love the fact that it’s salty, sweet and creamy in your mouth. It doesn’t feel legal, even though it’s full of meat and mom knows it’ll keep you full for a long time. And it’s on a stick – it’s so fun to eat!” says Mabel.

As a result of the success of Browns Corn Dogs, the duo are looking to expand their range, starting with a vegan corn dog.

Mabel and Wale have lots of advice for other budding entrepreneurs looking at moving into this space – but Mabel says the most important thing is to make yourself accountable.

“If you have a brilliant idea, tell someone else about it and make yourself accountable to someone. Now it’s out there, so you’ve got to do something about it,” she says.

From left to right - Promise Mpele, Checkers Buyer in the Gauteng Division with Mabel and Nthati Akinlabi