Find Your Passion By Serving Others
At the age of 27, Lufefe Nomjana is a social entrepreneur, known to his community as ‘The Spinach King’ or ‘Popeye,’ not only because of his love for spinach, but because of what he has turned it into. Self-starter Lufefe’s company, Espinaca (Spanish word for spinach) Innovations, is starting a health revolution in Cape Town’s townships. He tells us the story of how he found his calling while on his quest to serve others.
Growing up in Gugulethu, Lufefe and his two brothers were raised by a single mother, while his father lived in the Eastern Cape.
“Life was challenging. We were raised in an unhealthy environment, and having to live in an informal settlement was not easy. We also didn’t have much money. Things got really tough when I was in primary school – my brothers and I had to split up because my mother couldn’t afford to take care of us.”
Lufefe says that he was sent to the Eastern Cape to live with his mother’s sister when he was nine years old, to complete Grades Four and Five.
“Living in the Eastern Cape was hard. I was used to the way my mother had raised us – she would allow us freedom at home. But in the Eastern Cape my aunty was strict. Also, being separated from my brothers was not easy.”
When Lufefe began high school, he was reunited with his brothers in Cape Town.
“Things improved at home when my mother began selling tripe. We would wake up before 6am and clean the tripe. After that, my mom would cook it and go and sell it at the taxi rank. During the weekends we would join her and sell with her. We enjoyed it – we were making money and had something to eat, so we were happy.”
Driven to help his family, Lufefe got his first job after school hours at a young age.
“At 13, I began working at a supermarket and earned R20 for my family. My eldest brother hustled as well and we supported each other as family members. My aunt lived close to us so she would help us as well from time to time.”
“Growing up, I never believed in doing things for myself. My motivation was to help others. We lived in a shack and had to work in order to survive. My mother tried her best raising us and today she is my role-model. My brothers and I are who we are because of her. She was both mother and father to us and she always made sure we were on track, like the way she handled our initiation ceremonies: she arranged everything – a role the father normally takes. She was like that in every part of our lives.”
After two years of selling tripe, Lufefe’s mom began working as a domestic worker and his brothers moved back to the Eastern Cape. For the next few years, Lufefe had various jobs until he matriculated, but he says that the one that invoked his inner entrepreneur was as a stock-taker for the Edcon Group, immediately after finishing school.
“After matric I had a casual job in the clothing industry, but because it was seasonal, the contract soon ended. I was frustrated, because I knew I wanted more. So I approached the delivery guys and asked them where I could find the manufacturer who supplied the clothes. I found out where they were and went straight to the factory and bought reject clothes. I bought and resold the clothes, door to door, from 2010 to 2012.”
In-between this, Lufefe says that he bought a second-hand camera and an instant print machine, and took photos of party-goers in the township’s night scene. He also began studying a Business Management course at Cape Town College.
Unfortunately, Lufefe’s business venture hit a bump; because people weren’t paying he was forced to close down.
“In 2012 I hit a bit of a low for three months, not knowing what to do. I knew I didn’t want to work for someone. I remember going to the library and reading many books and a line from one of them stuck with me: success comes and is inevitable when you assist others. So that’s what I did, I looked around my community and identified a need. I began volunteering in a community garden.”
This is where Lufefe’s love for vegetables began.
“At the time I was living alone in a shack in a back yard and I would survive on the spinach and the crops that we grew in the garden. I only ate vegetables and I became a vegetarian – a lifestyle I still live today.”
“I assisted in the garden, doing anything that was needed by the elderly ladies who ran it. But I wanted to add value, and changed their model from a social to a commercial way of doing things. My previous experience with clothing assisted me, and I started taking the harvest and selling it door-to-door. The garden began making money.”
“I began earning R200 per month. I then decided to volunteer at the Michael Mapongwana Community Health Clinic for three weeks. That was when I realised that unhealthy eating is a big problem in our communities. I worked closely with the dietician, as well as in a part of the hospital called the ‘club,’ where people got their medication and blood tests done. Every day there were about 300 people, and my job was to get an eating plan from the dietician, and explain it to the people I saw in Xhosa. I was exposed to new knowledge and terms I had never heard before. I kept talking about GI’s and substituting white bread in your diet.”
In the evenings, Lufefe remembers sitting alone in his shack, asking himself what he should do next.
“One night, I was going through this process when another sentence I read in another book came to mind: look around you; you already have all the resources you need. I looked around and I saw a bunch of spinach. I had previously read,how healthy spinach was because of its high nutrient content. The dietician’s talks around bread also popped into my mind; one plus one and I developed the idea to bake spinach bread. The best spinach bread in the world.”
“I knew nothing about baking, so I did a lot of research on the topic. I didn’t have Internet or a computer at home, so I would go to the library and Google things like ‘how to make bread’. When I finally managed to get a recipe I was happy with,I did not have any tools to bake it. The words ‘look around for resources’ kept popping up in my mind, and my next door neighbour had a kitchen with an oven, so I asked her if I could use her kitchen.”
“To be honest my first loaf of bread wasn’t very good, so I went back to researching. I remember Googling how to bake the best bread in the world. I came across a website called ‘abreaducation’, which taught me step-by-step techniques, from kneading to fermentation. I learned so much during that time.”
“My neighbour agreed that I could use her oven during the evening if I was out of the kitchen by early morning. I only had R40 capital, so I started by baking three loaves of bread per night and going around the community during the day selling door-to-door. I used one loaf for sampling and sold the other two.”
“It took me more than a year to develop the bread recipe I was happy with. A low-GI spinach bread where, instead of using white sugar we used brown sugar or honey, and substituted flour with pea or soya flour – which gave a reduced carbohydrate content.”
The demand for the bread grew in the community and Lufefe couldn’t cope just using his neighbour’s kitchen any longer. So he decided to approach a local Spar to use their ovens.
“The value in asking is amazing. Spar let me use their ovens, gave me a shelf, and let me sell the bread in their store, rent-free for the next year. I accumulated money and bought a container and ovens to officially start by own business.”
Espinaca Innovations now produces over 200 loaves of bread, as well as spinach muffins, spinach pizza bases, rusks and spinach juice – all from a container converted into a bakery in Khayelitsha. The company currently employees 12 people and the bakery supplies various Spars and hotels.
Lufefe raised money through the Thundafund crowdfunding platform and bought five bicycles, in order to sell various items door-to-door in the community.
In a very interesting development, Espinaca Innovations, with the assistance of Cornell University in America, has developed Spinach Chips, which will be released later in the year.
Today, Lufefe is married and has recently become a dad, living in Khayelitsha and enjoying the community environment.
“My dream is not to grow a big business, but rather to own something that can serve my community. I wish one day to have my own spinach farm and to positively change the eating habits of the people in the township.”
Concluding, Lufefe says: “I always say to young people that where you are depends on how you think. I learned that by changing my thinking through reading and reflecting on my life, I was able to come up with solutions to my problems. We already have everything we need to succeed; it is only a matter of waking up. The second thing I say to young people is that, growing up I had a dream of helping my family; as I grew older my dream became something even greater - to help everyone. The key to everything in life is serving others, as success is inevitable when you assist others.”
Lufefe is the founder of Espinaca Innovations and a previous Life Choices Peer-Educator