#WomeninIT: A chat with Colleen Flowers on building a sauce business on the heels of technology

David Afolayan
Colleen Flowers of Colleen's Handmade Sauces
Colleen Flowers of Colleen’s Handmade Sauces

Colleen Flower prides her business success, Colleen’s Handmade Sauces on the fact that her sauces are made of the best available natural ingredients that are sourced from local organic farmers.

A recent grandmother, Colleen saw a gap in the South African sauce market from her shopping experience and started a range of premium handmade products to meet the demands of customers who like her have fresh and organic tastes.

“My love for everything chilli is how Colleen’s Handmade Sauces came about. After experimenting in the kitchen looking for the perfect blend minus all the preservatives and nasties found in shop-bought sauces I created my all-time favourite Bird’s Eye Chili Sauce which I shared with all the other chilli addicts at the office”, Colleen explains on her business page.

“We are one of the very few companies in South Africa manufacturing Date Syrup sourcing dates from local farmers. Also branching out to healthy Chocolate-coated Dates using sugar-free palm oil-free chocolate sourced locally”, she told me in an exclusive interview about how she has improved her business significantly using technology.

Through Colleen’s experience, we also see how building businesses for many African women is also about bonding experiences, empowering families and building communities.

Colleen Flowers of Colleen's Handmade Sauces
Colleen Flowers of Colleen’s Handmade Sauces
Handmade Sauces: thoroughly made from the stable to the table

Colleen told me that the “handmade” tag in the business name is intentional. It indicates the peculiar attention to the quality of the ingredients right from the point of sourcing.

It is also meant to indicate the process of the production. According to Colleen:

“I put the handmade in the name because the products are handmade. They are not made with machinery. We have a process to make all the mixtures. So, with the name handmade, I tell the customers that this product was made especially for you. And, that makes them see the sauces as special.”

– Colleen Flowers

To address concerns about business continuity even in her absence, since she is involved in every production, Colleen explained that the team makes adequate preparations.

Colleen's Handmade Sauces- Birds eye
Colleen’s Handmade Sauces- The Birds eye

I do make every single batch. This is why knowing that I will be in the UK for a period, I was very busy the week before to make sure we had enough stock for dispatching”, she adds.

Colleen sources all her ingredients locally. This is especially important to her for 2 important reasons: sustainability and uniqueness.

For the first, it is important for Colleen that she sources to be able to protect the promise of delivering sauces that are “sugar-free and gluten-free”.

“There are few other brands out there but ours is unique because of the immense amount of care we put in. In today’s world where everything is about scaling down quality for profit, you will find that our output is not watered down”,  she points out.

Building a community while building

Colleen’s handmade sauces are made from ingredients sourced from local farmers. For Colleen, that allows her to source fresh produce and build a community.

There is a growing movement of sustainable farmers, especially in South Africa, who are renowned for growing their products organically. And, these are the farmers Colleen loves to support.

I don’t go to the Johannesburg markets to buy farm products because I feel that there’s a lot of exploitation of farmers there”, Colleen tells me. “I buy directly from farmers because it is more profitable for them and I know where my ingredients come from”, she adds.

Consequently, the relationship between Colleen and her farmers has grown beyond the commodity exchange. Some of the farmers have become evangelists and parters in other ways.

“When you watch our video online, you will see a young lady who is very close to my heart, called Catherine.  I source from Catherine’s Farm. She sells the product as well in her farm shop. So, when customers come to buy her products, she also tells them about a sauce produced by a lady that sources ingredients from local farmers like her”, Colleen says.

“Sometimes, farmers like Nelson call me to say I have 200 kilograms of chilli and I will buy it off them to help the farmer avoid wastages”, she adds.

Using technology like Google to drive growth

For Colleen who started her business at 49, the internet is not an unfamiliar phenomenon. “I grew up in the age of Google”, she says. However, she did not know how much she could leverage the Internet to grow the business. So, she recalls her journey to doing more:

“My son introduced me to the Google Hustle Academy. He said ‘Mum why don’t you sign up for this? I feel it could help your business. And, I signed up for it. And, it was an amazing experience. I didn’t expect the course content to be that comprehensive.”

At the Google Hustle Academy, Colleen was exposed to the rudiments of business building. She had lessons on financing, bookkeeping, and marketing and did her SWAT analysis. She also participated in competitions and defended her ideas before the faculty.

YouTube player

“It changed the way I look at the business afterwards. And, I started using tools like Google Ads to give the business global visibility and it improved sales significantly”, she explained.

Colleen’s Challenges and Successes

For Colleen, transitioning from being a lecturer for 14 years to becoming a sauce maker was an introduction to an entirely new world. 

“I didn’t know much about regulations in the food industry. So that was a challenge so it had to learn everything from scratch”, she said.

This early challenge later became a major win for Colleen as she was able to acquire enough knowledge to dominate her space.

“I had to learn about the policies around what is allowed and what is not allowed. Today, I have a full food management system in place”, she told me. “It has been a constant learning curve. And, l cannot tell you the amount of knowledge that I have gained”, she adds.

Colleen also had to solve the challenges of financing and cash flow management. “You know, I was new to the retail system where we supply stores and there is a payment period”, she shared.

During her learning time at the Google Hustle Academy, Colleen shared classes with a lot of women from across Africa. According to her, they enjoyed a camaraderie and a set of similar experiences.

One such experience is the temptation to give up. According to her, “ We face a lot of challenges these days and you feel that you are running the business to keep the staff employed because it is so tough out”.

“But, you need that strength and resilience to keep going. Things will sometimes not go the way you have planned. You just gotta get yourself up and keep going”, she advised.

A team that is like a family

Being a new player in the space, Colleen’s first major task was to build a team of trusted workers that not only makes the work easier but is invested in sustaining the premium standard.

Colleen started small. 

“I started with just myself. I was the one cooking. I was bottling I was cleaning and I had a part-time job. Then, I realised that I was struggling. Then, I hired my first employee, Miss Penrose. She is the queen of bottling”, she explained.

Going forward, Colleen’s team had a swell flow of friends and referrals from trusted friends. This is significant for her because it validates the impact her business is making.

The team at Colleen's Handmade Sauces
The team at Colleen’s Handmade Sauces

She explains the team composition briefly:

“When it was time to employ some more people, I found a young of 23 to do the logistics together. He has grown with the business. He is 26 now. Then, we had Chris, the son of a supplier and the wife of my printer. I also met a lovely young lady by accident. She was buying my product and following me and eventually one day we met in a coffee shop”.

In all, Colleen said that her biggest motivation has been the impact she has been able to make on the lives and the families of the people she works with and whom she serves.

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