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She’s tapping traditional food culture to grow business for herself and her country

WHEN Ompelege Moreosele's job as a receptionist didn't feel right, she tapped into early memories of her food-loving grandmother and switched careers. Now she's using those memories to make Botswana's food culture famous.

“MY memories of food are very powerful. My earliest memory dates back to when I was about eight years old. I absolutely adored going to the farm with my grandmother, we used to get up really early in the morning on weekends to harvest vegetables, sorghum and maize,” said Ompelege Moreosele, who is better known both in Botswana and South Africa as a food entrepreneur and author, Chef Cathy.

So powerful were those memories that finding herself working as a receptionist after studying advertising, she chose to quit and start again, this time following her passion.

Today, gathering ingredients from farmers around Gaborone for her food business, Moreosele regularly finds herself engaging with farmers through traditional greetings and customs, following the practices that her grandmother taught her. Food has become not just a livelihood but a way to honour the food and culture of her ancestors.

Raised in Kalamare village, in the central district of Botswana, by a grandmother who prided herself on cooking food tied to the Tswana culture, Moreosele has embraced that legacy.

“I enjoyed spending time cooking with her… She was well known by everyone in Kalamare for her fat cakes, mapakiwa (bread rolls) and serobe (offal),” Moreosele explained.

Her grandmother would allow the young Moreosele to collect peanuts and maize for herself. She even gave her a small pot to cook what she had collected, using firewood for fuel. That would allow Moreosele’s grandmother, who would be busy processing and packaging food she harvested from the farm, to work undisturbed.

From time to time she would give the young Moreosele compliments, like “your peanuts taste really good” and “you grilled your maize very well”.

“I developed a love for cooking through her encouragement,” Moreosele said.

“I remember kneading the dough for fat cakes and peeling potatoes for her. I even enrolled in home economics and food and nutrition during my secondary school days because I really loved and enjoyed cooking.”

However, her path deviated from her passion after completing high school – a development she puts down to a lack of career advice, She ended up taking an associate degree in advertising, then switched to business management.

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“I got a job as a receptionist but had a sense that my life was incomplete and that I needed to start again,” she shared.

Moreosele then decided she was going to do what she loved, unconditionally. She would turn to cooking. She has never looked back.

“I told myself that cooking is an essential skill. I saved up to do my certificate in food preparation and cooking with the Gaborone College of Culinary Arts and advanced into a diploma in culinary arts at Gaborone Technical College. It was the best decision I have ever made.”

The academic and career milestones lit a fire under Moreosele. She wanted more. The realisation pushed her to pursue an idea she had ruminated over for years: to build a business selling spices made from locally sourced ingredients.

“I was inspired by a South African chef, Chef Nti who is a chef but is venturing into other culinary arts businesses like manufacturing spices and sauces. I buy fresh herbs and vegetables, dehydrate them to dry, add some flavouring, sugar and salt and use a medium blender to blend everything together. Then I add oils and anti-caking. Lastly, I package, label and seal the bottles,” she shared.

“The business started its operations in December 2022 and was born in my small home kitchen. With love and motivation, I was able to make rubs and spices in smaller batches,” she disclosed.

Inspiration for the rubs and spices business came from cravings that originated in childhood – and almost a decade of experience in the food and beverage industry as a recipe developer.

As Chef Cathy, Moreosele has several culinary awards under her belt that are evidence of her impact on the culinary world.

Some major highlights of her career include being recognized and awarded the Best Sorghum Recipe FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations) Indigenous People Recipe Unit, at the World Food Forum in October 2022 and an outstanding leadership award at the Intercontinental, Dubai Festival City Hotel in 2021.

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Her recipe book, Life on a Salad, won her an award at the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards in France, in 2021.

Another high point was when the Botswana Investment and Trade Center (BITC) and the Botswana government provided her with a platform to showcase the nation’s food story at various events around the world.

“We prepare and showcase traditional foods to international clientele and guests, at high-end events like Forbes Under 30 Africa, UN & African Summits, Global Expo Botswana, Dubai Expo 2020-2021, Saitex Expo South Africa, Kusi Ideas Festival, Rwanda, Kenya and Ghana,” Moreosele explained.

In recent years, the government of Botswana banned the importation of some horticultural produce, baked goods and other foodstuffs. The list continues to grow as the country tries to reduce its import bill and encourage self-reliance and industrialisation of these sectors as well as promote citizen economic empowerment. This has created opportunities for local producers.

Moreosele currently produces mild chillies, an all-in-one rub and spice and a meat rub and spice. One spice bottle sells at 30 pula (about US$2.22), while a set of 3 goes for 90 pula (US$6.66).

Food expert and pastry chef Precious Lesetedi noted that while the spice industry in Botswana is still in its infancy, it is a growing industry and could grow faster with government support.

“If there can be a partial ban on importation of pastry products and fresh produce in order to boost local producers and farmers, the same can be done to aid growth in the spice industry,” she said.

Moreosele has had some help from another quarter, however.

Her brother, Fredrick Disenkeng, assists with events and also helps her with the spice and rubs business. He is in charge of packaging, sealing and delivery to customers in and around Gaborone. His sister’s passion for food has also encouraged him to join the food business full-time.

“The challenges that my sister encounters are last-minute orders from customers which then puts her under pressure as she will have to buy ingredients, organize transportation, organize labour if it’s something that requires more labour and all of this takes a lot of time to achieve,” Disenkeng noted.

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Lesetedi also said she believes a local rubs-and-spices industry can be profitable, given the growing demand.

“It’s seasoning. You can’t really prepare anything without seasoning it, from foods as simple as eggs to pot roast, some sort of seasoning is used and I can’t imagine the amount of money that local food production entities could make if they were the preferred suppliers of such spices which are a daily household staple,” she said.

While the Botswana market remains small, Moreosele has found customers for her rubs and spices in South Africa and Zambia, through agents who sell on her behalf.

Challenges still abound.

“A challenge of making my rubs and spices is that some ingredients are not available locally like palm oils, so I end up using vegetable oils,” she said.

Luckily, lessons from her grandmother and mentors on her journey have left her well-armed to deal with a wide array of challenges.

“I have always considered myself a culturally aware person, having a grandmother who always taught me how to cook local traditional food. Meeting people from various walks of life truly changed my culinary worldview. Also, having a chance and the opportunity to meet and spend time with celebrities in big and small restaurants and reality shows has taught me that cooking involves important life skills, particularly patience, problem-solving, and creativity,” Moreosele concluded.

Besides, giving up on the culinary world is not an option.

Moreosele will be publishing her second recipe book in 2024 titled, A Simple Art of Botswana Sorghum, which promotes Botswana sorghum.

She currently resides in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she will be providing recipe development consultancy services for unnamed food brands.