Racquel Mafura-Roberts: On the Growing Success of Pepper & Stew
Meet Racquel Mafura-Roberts. Born in Zimbabwe, she was raised by her grandma and aunt, women she describes as strong and hard-working, and who were of strong influence in her life. At the age of 21, she travelled to the UK to study Accounting, but realised pretty quickly that she didn’t want to do Accounting for the rest of her life. She now lives in London with her British-Ghanaian husband and the couple are building the Pepper and Stew brand together.
Growing in a Zimbabwean family she learnt how to cook from a very young age. At age 12, she could cook Sadza for the whole family. Sadza is a local Zimbabwean delicacy – which is eaten with meat stew and greens.
Every Zimbabwean woman or man needs to cook Sadza well. My grandma made sure of it. Sadza is a staple in Zimbabwe – it’s our version of pounded yam or fufu and it’s a skill to cook this correctly.
“My grandma taught me a lot about traditional Zimbabwean food. I grew up around my mom’s cousins and sisters who I visited over the school holidays. Zimbabwean women are very house-proud. Cooking is an essential skill for every woman. I learned how to cook different dishes from each household I visited. All of these experiences had a massive influence on my love for food and cooking. When I moved to the UK, I made friends with other Africans. We visited one another and cooked our traditional dishes. The dishes I got to eat and learn about fascinated me to no end.”
Getting to Know Racquel and the Pepper and Stew Brand
Who has been your biggest influence in your journey to becoming a food entrepreneur? Any role model in the food industry?
My biggest influence in my cooking journey and the decision to start an African food company has been my fellow African friends here in the diaspora. They are too many to mention, but I have friends from all over West Africa, East Africa and Southern Africa. My in-laws from Ghana have also been of influence.
For my role models in the food industry, the first person is Chef Pierre Thiam. I just love the way he is bringing Senegalese food to the mainstream food industry. He is bringing the knowledge, culture and the food in a very proud and unashamed way that you can’t help but fall in love with his work.
The second is Jessica B. Harris. Through her books people are learning about Sub-Saharan African cuisine and its influences on other world cuisines. Like her, I hope to travel around Africa and write about the food and culture of the different parts of the vast continent.
Your goal has been to get African cuisine into the mainstream market. This year marks the fifth anniversary of Pepper and Stew. How has the journey been so far?
It’s been a steep learning curve. I have learnt a lot about food production and running a company. We have had our high points more recently like being part of Harrods World Food Festival and our products being stocked there. British Library sold our products throughout their West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song exhibition – it was a massive success. We have also been sold over the years in high-end food stores like Partridges Sloane Square London (Grocers to Her Majesty the Queen), Dean and Deluca Middle East to name a few. Our Jollof sauce was also shortlisted under the Food Ingredients category for the Free From Food awards.
Winning the Great Taste Award by the Guild of Fine Foods for our Egusi sauce was amazing! I decided to enter our Jollof sauce and Egusi sauce a couple of years after I started the company. For our Jollof sauce, we got feedback that it was not unique enough but we managed to scoop a star for the Egusi sauce. As you may know Great Taste has been described as the ‘Oscars’ of the food world and the ‘epicurean equivalent of the Booker Prize.’ The Great Taste logo, which is on the Egusi sauce, is the sign you can trust and it is amazing that we have it!
The challenge is to have and maintain a strong market for African convenience food products. The African food market is not as strong yet, but I believe it’s only a matter of time.
Coming from Southern Africa, what made you choose to begin your range of sauces with West African cuisine?
When I tasted food from West Africa upon arriving in the UK, I fell head over heels. I could not believe the variety and richness of West African cuisine and that I had never eaten food like that when I was back home in Zimbabwe. It was an easy choice to make West African sauces my starting point.
Delving Deeper in Getting to Know the Pepper and Stew Brand
When did you begin dreaming about the Pepper and Stew brand? When did you start?
I started dreaming about starting an African food-based company about 8 years ago. I started the company 3 years later. There was a lot of hesitation, but I was so passionate about the idea that I had to go for it.
Pepper and Stew. What’s the story behind the name?
Honestly the name just came to me. I thought of many other names before this, but this just stuck with me. Perhaps because I was learning about a lot of stews with lots of pepper involved?
How does Pepper and Stews’ sauces make cooking easier?
If you think about making Jollof rice for example – you would need to wash, peel and blend the ingredients and cook them for a minimum of 25 minutes before adding the rice then cooking for another 25 or so minutes. With our Jollof sauce for example, we have done the work required for the first 25-30 minutes of making the dish. You don’t even need to own a blender. You can have your Jollof rice in 25 minutes. Look at the time you save – and if you don’t know how to make Jollof, we have a recipe on the jar and website for you to follow. Same idea applies to the rest of the sauces in the range.
What inspires you in crafting your unique sauces? How do you come up with ideas?
African dishes inspire me to create food products. The idea of the sauces came to me when I started cooking West African food for my fellow Zimbabweans. They kept asking how to make dishes like Jollof Rice. I then had the idea of making the Jollof sauce base and pouring them into jars that they could use. The rest of the sauces then followed. They are all based on an African dish that has inspired me.
What makes Pepper and Stew stand out from all the other sauces it sits on the same shelf with?
Pepper and Stew sauces are uniquely designed to cook West African dishes like Jollof rice and Egusi stew. They contain no artificial preservatives and they taste ‘fresher’ compared to most of the jarred sauces on the UK market.
What range of products do you have now? What use can each sauce be put to?
With the launch of our new site, we only have the West African sauces range – Jollof sauce, Egusi sauce and palm nut sauce. We are now working on sauces from the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, then spices and chilli sauces will follow. All the sauces can be used as they are or as a base for any stews/soups (chicken, lamb, vegetables, etc). See recipes suggestions on the blog section of our website.
A sneak peek of new sauces you are coming up with?
That would be letting the secret out. We are coming up with a new range soon. Sign up for our newsletter and be the first to know.
You’ve come a long way. Pepper and Stew has been established as a known brand in the UK. What’s the next phase of growth?
We want to create more convenience products to make African food quick and easy to prepare and enjoy. Africa is a huge continent with different delicacies from every country. We still have lots of dishes to cover.
The market for African sauces is not as yet strong as we would like it to be. We want African convenience food products like ours to be a part of people’s weekly or monthly shopping.
For Africans especially those living in the diaspora – it’s important to use time wisely. We want to change people’s mindsets around how to cook our foods more quickly so as to save time and most importantly teach our social media obsessed children – who have little patience to do things from scratch – to still cook traditional foods. Our foods is an important part of our identity. We also want to continue promoting African cuisine in the mainstream convenience food market in the West, because we have great cuisines which can stand up to any other! This will all take a while, but we are here to stay.
You’ve built such a beautiful brand. Your jars and labels are visually appealing. You employed minimal design with monochrome colours that allows the content to bring out the character of the product. Will you say putting so much into your visual identity has been a success factor for Pepper and Stew?
That has definitely been part of our success. Having a great looking product is half the battle won. It has opened a lot of doors in our case. It also shows hopefully, how dedicated we are to this and how important it is for us to share African food with the world.
Who are you clients? How are you leveraging social media to promote your brand and reach new customers? What other methods have you employed in creating brand awareness?
Our customers are young African professionals with little time to spend on cooking and also adventurous cooks who have usually lived or worked in Africa. We love social media. We use it to showcase our creations using the products, to share information about the company and also to bring together people who share the same interests as us –interest revolving around African food and our African identity. We also attend various food events in the UK. A couple of years ago we entered our products for the BBC Good Food Show Producers Bursary Awards. We won the bursary and showcased at the BBC Good Food Birmingham NEC – a massive food event in the UK. We have also been invited to the South Bank Africa Utopia Festival, another big event for African food and culture.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced on the Pepper and Stew journey?
Just getting to change people’s mindsets around African food alone is a hurdle. For fellow Africans to come to the place of acceptance that we do not need to go through the long process all the time to cook a great dish or be considered ‘wifey’ material. And for non-Africans to know that African cuisine is not just centred around scarcity – our foods are rich and diverse and they are as healthy as any other.
Before we signed out, we wanted to learn a bit more about Racquel
What’s your husband’s favourite dish made with your sauce?
Salmon palmnut soup without a doubt. He loves this with fufu. He also loves the spinach stew with plantain and Jollof rice with grilled fish and plantain. He is pescetarian, which means a person whose diet is mostly vegetarian, but includes fish and seafood.
What food will you want to eat every other day?
This changes all the time. I am currently obsessed with fruit smoothies made using my Nutribullet (such a cliché I know). I am trying to be healthy. I make a fruit or veggie smoothie every morning. We get fruit delivered to our home every week. I also like fried plantain with shito.
What do you do for fun, to unwind or to relax?
I read cook books. I have so many of them. I have a whole wall in my spare bedroom dedicated to my bookshelf with many, many cookbooks. I hardly cook from them though. I just love reading them and looking at the pictures of the dishes. I also binge watch American TV series way too much. I just finished watching The Walking Dead – all 6 seasons. I usually watch while I cook so as not to feel too guilty. (Laughs)
I love reading fiction too. I mostly read books by African authors, as I can relate to most of the stories in them and also I have a fascination around what is written around African food in these books. West African authors, especially Nigerians, I am finding write a lot about their food. I am currently reading “I Do Not Come to You by Chance” by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. I have many favourite titles. All Chimamanda’s books are great and so are Petinah Gappah’s books. I can go on and on.
What do you love most about your job?
I love the creative freedom it gives me. I like it that I can make my ideas happen! Whether or not they work is another thing. But I like it that for example Pepper and Stew is a realisation of an idea that occurred to me some years back.
What’s your advice for people looking to enter the food retail business?
I say go for it! Do your research around food laws wherever you are and be clear on it. Once you have this sorted out, let your creativity reign!
What’s your three favourite restaurants in London that serve African dishes?
Go to The Gold Coast Restaurant in South Norwood for traditional Ghanaian food; 805 Restaurant in Hendon for some Nigerian cuisine and The Meat and Wine Co in Westfield Shepherds Bush for South African fusion cuisine.
If I were to stop over in London for a couple of days, which attractions would you recommend I put on my list of things to do?
Go to The Shard – the tallest building in London currently. It offers you great views of London day or night. There are amazing pop up restaurants (a few around African cuisine as well) happening around London most weekends. Attend one for a unique eating experience.