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Shito. A tale of far more than a spicy African sauce

PEARL AKANYA OFORI

HER sauce has built a listed company and her tale is now lauded as one of the region’s great export stories. But it took far more than the local popularity of a misnamed pepper, and ten dollars in savings, to bring this startup story to life. A life’s determination, sacrifice and considerable entrepreneurial skills were required.

Seated in her office in Tema, an industrial hub east of the Ghanaian capital, Accra, Leticia Osafo-Addo wears a big smile as she sifts through a pile of orders for both the local and export market. She is surrounded by awards won over almost three decades of production of her regionally famous pepper sauce, Shito, named for a generic (and aptly named) regional chilli pepper sauce – shito.

Osafo-Addo can afford to smile. Her story is one of the best known in Africa, told many times over in local tabloids and international pages, as well as on television and in social media. Her hot chilli sauce, popular in Ghana and eaten with most dishes sells all over the world. But looking at the business now is to belie its shaky beginnings.

Like many startup businesses that kick off with little or no capital, the now-CEO of Samba Foods started her company with just ten dollars in 1992.

“Yes, I had only ten US dollars when I decided to start this business. I had no business plan and knew nothing about the food business. All I know is that my mind was just made up to make Shito’’, she recalls.

Trained as a certified anaesthetist and critical care specialist in Germany, it was a big shock to her family – particularly her mother -when upon her return to Ghana and after years of study overseas, she decided to abandon the medical field and venture into an unfamiliar world of food production.

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Osafo-Addo realised she would have to succeed, fast. There would be no second chances.

‘’When I decided to start the business, I became a subject of ridicule. People found it very demeaning for a trained medical professional like myself who had spent several years training overseas, to sell “ordinary” pepper sauce,” she explained.

Using kitchen utensils at home, she made her first ten bottles of the sauce, which she gave to her friends to appraise.

“All I needed was for them to tell me whether they liked it or not”.

With good reviews in hand, Leticia produced even more. Much of her second batch went to a local departmental store, Kingsway, one of her first clients. They sold out.

That was enough to convince her that what she had seen as an opportunity, really was one.

‘’Even before I started, people were already preparing and consuming shito but I found out that it was not common in stores and no-one had been bold enough to commercialise it. I also noticed that for every boarding student in senior high school in Ghana, one of the things they would usually carry along with them was shito. Every parent bought it (homemade shito) for their ward. I saw this as a great opportunity to have my product everywhere.”

Apart from the societal and family pressures, early difficulties included sourcing funds to commercialise and scale the product. Osafo-Addo asserted that in most African cultures where women are largely regarded as home-makers, societal norms hinder women-owned businesses. She knew that in addition to the financing difficulties, she would need to work twice as hard as her male counterparts, to stay relevant.

With little more than zest to get her going, Osafo-Addo landed an injection of cash into her business from Ghana’s National Board for Small Scale Industries. She then got authorisation from the Ghana Standards Authority to begin the production, packaging and distribution of this spicy Ghanaian condiment.

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A year later, in 1993, Samba became the first wholly-owned Ghanaian company to commercialise the production of shito.

Just like every business, her company had its own fair share of challenges, according to Osafo-Addo. When many of her early clients folded their businesses and competition threatened the existence of her company, she had every reason to give up and return to the medical field. Instead, she chose to change her approach.

“We now had to use the B2B which is business-to-business approach.”

Samba foods grew quickly and the “Shito” brand became much sought after by major supermarkets dotted across the country.

‘’Everyone wanted it,’’ Osafo-Addo added.

It sounds simple but that would be to underestimate Osafo-Addo’s entrepreneurial instincts, which she currently shares with other young would-be Ghanaian entrepreneurs in regular seminars. It is a story of highs and lows, triumphs and adversity. And it is a story that could not be told without a key ingredient – the capsicum peppers that gave rise to the sauce itself. Before becoming the key element in a Ghanaian chilli pepper sauce, the capsicum pepper had travelled from its native South America to West Africa by way of Cuba. From there it travelled to China, becoming so popular in Chinese cuisine that when a Dutch scientist named it in 1776, he erroneously called it Capsicum chinense. It seems he had little idea just how popular it had become in West Africa. Osafo-Addo recognised that popularity, on her return from Germany – and bet her future on it.

With a staff strength of about 25, Samba Foods later added twelve new products, including ginger garlic paste and peanut butter, to its chilli pepper offering. This, she said, was not only to provide clients with a variety of products but also to ensure the company remained competitive and stayed in business. Her unique packaging style, she maintains, distinguished her from her competitors.

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More than twenty-five years on, Samba Foods still remains one of the most viable companies in the shito-making industry, having not only created a niche but also an increasingly well-known brand. According to its CEO, Samb supplies products including its very popular pepper sauce to a number of global brands like Kentucky Fried Chicken, and exports to the United States.

Today, Samba is listed on the Ghana Stock Exchange. ‘’ We decided to do this because I want this business to outlive me when I am gone and I want the business to be accountable. Most businesses don’t survive beyond the first generation’’, Osafo-Addo explained of the 2014 listing.

While the list of awards that Osafo-Addo and her company have garnered along the way is long, there are several she particularly appreciates, including the 2019 Manufacturing Business of the Year. In 2010 she was conferred the highest award of the land by the then-president; recognition she appreciates to this day.

In the next couple of years, Osafo-Addo hopes Samba will open branches around the globe and be able to serve a lot more countries

“Now we are a global supplier because we service global brands but we are looking at setting up in other countries”.

Until that happens, this anaesthetist-turned entrepreneur is simply proud to have pioneered Ghana’s first internationally recognised food brand.

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By The African Mirror

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