Interviewing Siphiwe Shongwe, the brains behind the formulation of Mo faya; the champion, game changing energy drink, was both an honour and a pleasure. He started things of by saying that the reason why he agreed to give us a sincere narration of what the brand is and stands for is because he is inspired by the work we do. “I think what you guys are doing is very progressive and is what the youth of SA needs and it’s what the youth of Africa needs,” he said, “I believe it’s about time we start telling our stories, we start to create what resonance with us, as Africans, because what normally happens, especially with us Africans, is that, in this global village, we look outward to seek inspiration, and there is nothing wrong with looking outwards, but there is a problem if you want to relate with something that is kilometres away, because most of what you will see is through the media, through television or social media, which is but just a drop in the ocean. So I think with this platform we’ll be able to tell stories of who we are and what makes us tick.” He made mention of how sad it is that our stories are told by other people. “So guys you inspire me,” he added. “I don’t do this and I don’t like to do this, I’m not the one who is in the public and it’s the first time I do this.” We thank you immensely for the privilege.
Picture by Muzikayise Sibeko
On the inspiration behind the company he said, “When I look at the inspiration node I always look inward and as a South African where we are at this present moment we get inspiration from, predominately, a political landscape, so I actually drew inspiration from two political events that happened in our South African history; one is the march that was done by imbokodo, abomama bethu, our mothers, when they marched against the dompass, in the 1950s; the second one is the march against the repressive regime of the time by the youth of 1976.” He said that when you look closely at those events they actually changed the trajectory of the political system in a very big way, but they also communicated other things, they communicated that you can resolve a misunderstanding through peace; secondly, when you believe in something you have to do it. “But if you look at those two events they showcased how unselfish a human-being can be for a broader cause, if you look at the march of the 1950s and the protest of 1976, they did that for a broader cause, for other people, for us, that inspired me to do something,” he told us.
He spoke on the importance of doing things with a purpose and how some purpose driven projects are for profit and others for non-profit. There Mo faya beverage company is a for profit entity which is designed to contribute in a non-profit entity with the aim of changing the course of history. “If you look at the individuals of 1954 and 1976, they had nothing, they had no weapons, they had no political backing, but had that burning desire within themselves, and they had that passion within themselves,” he said. “When you look at a burning desire and passion, they are always symbolised by fire, so as I was brainstorming Mo faya beverage with my business partner Sbusiso Leope (Dj Sbu) these where things that were coming down in our brainstorming template, so it was this fire and then next if you have this burning desire to change the course of history what is the purpose … and then what clicked was that what was being fought back then was political in nature and what we have to fight for now is economic in nature.”
He further elaborated, “We had to look at the history of Africa, what has happened with Africans, for more than 500 years, is that our dignity has been stripped of us, our culture has been stripped of us, our pride has been taken away from us, and then the next point was how do we regain that back.” He further said, “The only way was to demonstrate we have the ability to innovate and we have the ability to start things from scratch in order to fulfil a certain purpose, hence Mo faya beverage company was born, but we now have to come with a name, then I remembered there is a play in Kenya, it’s a dance play done in theatres, and they use that dance play to raise funds for the slumbs, shacks, imkhukhu, so as person that grew up in a Squatter camp, Kliptown, that resonated with me.
Picture by Muzikayise Sibeko
“That dance play is called Mo faya and it is for a certain purpose. And the dance play is not there to benefit those who organise the play, but those who are poor so that they can go to school and become better individuals. That is how the name Mo faya came about; that is what inspired the name”, he said.
The corporate identity of Mo faya is black, “black signifies Africa,” he said “black symbolises strength and boldness, and for any star to shine you wait for the darkness,” hence the black container. The gold stripes signify the wealth we have in Africa, we by far the wealthiest continent. The logo has a flame inside a badge, “it’s because,” he said, “I am honouring all the human-beings, not just black people, human-beings that have taken upon themselves to do good for humanity”. He said that they actually honour everybody that believes in their inner being, that believes in their passion for the good of humanity and that is why you see it as a coat of arms. A coat of arms symbolises what is behind an institution, the beliefs, and knowledge base that is behind an institution. What that symbolism represents for Mo faya is that they would like future generations to look at the badge, coat of arms, and it needs to ignite something in their heads to say that they can start something from scratch, they can be entrepreneurial, they can believe in what they do, “but they have to fight to make it happen”, he said. “This is a protest project, naturally, as we are the first 100 percent black owned entity to do this in Africa and when you protest or revolt things do come your way. But whatever is happening with us at the moment we are mentally and psychologically prepared because we knew from the onset that we are going to waters that no one has been to. So we are actually ready to fight in order to reclaim what we want to reclaim as Africans and for those other individuals that believe in our cause.” As a chemical engineer, he understands that you find warmth from coal which is black, from crude oil which is black, which contributed to the container being black.
He further said, “Because we are purpose driven we need to look broader, and when we look at what our government is doing, there is a policy called NIPF(National Industrial Policy Framework) that inspired me to do something, that document is saying vuka darkie”. As black people we need to industrialise, we need to able to create our own products, we need to beneficiate our minerals, rather than sending them off as raw commodities.” That document is pro empowerment, ownership, creation, innovation and I believe in those things”, he added. There is no 100% black owned beverage company that produces an energy drink in Africa, and they had a problem with that and that is not the legacy they would like to leave behind because generations to come will question them, he feels. That is why they are saying they are protesting to change the course of history and failure is not an option, but he doesn’t have a problem with failure, “if I fail it means I have demonstrated that I actually started something,” said Siphiwe.
There is book called Built to Last by Jim Collins, who analysed companies that lived beyond three generations and the vision of those companies is that they are always built on a long term foundation and they are all driven by a concept called MESP. Siphiwe broke it down for us and how it relates to their brand: “M is for Mental, if you start something you must have a mental fortitude to make sure that it lasts and whatever challenges that you are going to face you are ready for them mentally, E is for emotional, you must have an emotional connection to what you want to start, because if you have an emotional connection, it means you must have an emotional quotient that is high, so that when something happens you are able to react to it in a professional way, and in a mature manner”. He also believes in the Art of War by Sun Tzu, emphasizing the part that says that no angry man has ever won a war, “Even if things anger you, you must be able to retreat, calm yourself and then think, because what the book will teach is that if you use anger to resolve issues or problems you get anger out”. S is for spiritual, you must have the spiritual connection, the spiritual part, which is the important part, balances the mental and physical part (the P), because things that you see have been activated by the spiritual part of a person.”
He spoke on the vision of the brand and whether external factors might have sabotage or changed it by saying, “The vision of Mo faya is the same today and will remain the same tomorrow, the only thing that will change are the tactical dynamics”, he contends. The vision won’t be changed by curve balls thrown at the brand, as is currently happening with the negative reporting from the media. The vision is that the has to be a beverage company in Africa that competes at the same level as multinational companies, that vision is to ensure that we reclaim black pride, to ensure that we embrace the spirit of Ubuntu, which basically says that there is only one race in this world, which is the human race as Steve Biko alluded in the 70s. Mo faya is a pro development company, pro education company, “All of us believe in education and those strategic objectives, those values are not going to change, those are actually our roots, because we have decided on that tree that you going to see,” he said. “As you know what some people do, they plant a lemon tree and they become unhappy about the lemons, they take them down and then staple bananas on that tree, but tomorrow when it’s time for harvest they’ll find lemons on that tree.” He concluded by saying, “We know the tree we are planting and the type of fruits, and these fruits are not going to change.”
Energy merely changes and is never destroyed, change is the only constant, there must be things driving that change, “you throw stones at us, we build a house as the old adage says”, said Siphiwe. “There have been some learnings that have been disturbing nevertheless”, said Siphiwe. One being the number of people who gave an opinion on a subject that they were not that well informed with. The SABS saga was the saddest moment for Siphiwe, because the SABS process is voluntary and not mandatory and what you will find is that many products on the shelves, if people would take the time to check for themselves, your liquor fruits, appletizer, etc don’t have the SABS mark. But, it was sad how it was received especially by the majority of the country and how they gave an opinion which they have a right to, about something they never bothered to research on. The minority of the country did not have a problem with the SABS mark because they know the process is voluntary.
“Imagine developing something of the nature of our product and not going through varies conformance, compliance and verification tests, and as a chemical engineer I know the importance of quality assurance and quality control, certification, licensing, all those are things that rank high in my profession,” said Siphiwe. “I was disappointed by the coverage, because we are a developing country and as a developing country we don’t have that developing mindset.”
People will recall that Mo faya was never recalled from the shelves. Mo faya has gone through all the certification processes and toxicology tests as per SANAS, which is recognised by the government as a body that certifies all the laboratories that test the product, so the product is safe to consume and is the best testing energy drink out there, but those are the learnings that show we have a long way to go, especially as South Africans.
Mo faya energy drink is but one of the products with many more products to come from their beverage company. And as people whom the products are produce for, we will be the ones to decide whether they are good enough or not. Mo faya!!
Picture by Muzikayise SibekoPicture by Muzikayise Sibeko
By Themba Ka Mhlanga