“I always wanted to come save Africa,” says Claudia Castellanos with a sardonic grin. Bored with her fancy corporate job at Danone – the dairy behemoth – in Italy, the Colombian approached MBAs Without Borders, which places volunteers in advisory roles at socially-minded companies abroad. When she was offered a post in Swaziland, “I was like, ‘Hold on!’ – I was just trying to Google quickly where Swaziland was, making sure it was in Africa.” With that detail confirmed, she hastily accepted.
“I was supposed to be here for four months and I’ve been here already for eight years,” she says. While helping out with the marketing strategy for Gone Rural, a Swazi homeware brand which works closely with a network of rural women weavers, she fell in love with the tiny kingdom (and one of its citizens, Joe Roques, whom she subsequently married). When her volunteering gig came to an end, she joined TechnoServe, a business NGO. Throughout this time she got to witness firsthand Swaziland’s thriving fair trade network – a bunch of predominantly handcraft companies that produce high quality, low-volume products, empowering thousands through decent wages, training and a raft of other social and environmental commitments.
When Roque, a chilli-obsessed builder and graphic designer by day, told her how he had made a hot sauce under the name Black Mamba as a side project a few years before, Castellanos suggested they give it another go – this time, professionally. In 2010, they cooked up a trial batch at home and sold it at Bushfire; by the end of the three-day music festival there were no bottles left.
They’ve come a long way in the six years since then – upscaling from their kitchen to a squash court-sized factory in Matsapha where the sauces are cooked up, bottled and labelled – all by hand. Their socially conscious principles have remained the same from the start, though: all ingredients are locally sourced, and to help tackle the yawning gender inequality that persists in Swaziland, they work with three groups of mostly women growers – many of them grandmothers who use the income they get from Black Mamba to support extended families. The 60-odd growers have been trained by Guba, a food security and agriculture NGO, in permaculture principles (which view a farm as a self-sustaining ecosystem) to farm chillies and herbs (such as coriander and basil) without chemical fertilisers or nasty pesticides.
Castellanos hopes this is a model that more of Swaziland’s agriculture sector will embrace – moving away from ubiquitous, cheap crops to focus rather on farming high-value crops organically – “because then you get the premium price for that”. “The land here is so fertile; everything just grows beautifully so why don’t we just take more advantage of that instead of growing maize and sorghum?”
Although neither are trained chefs, Roques and Castellanos both love experimenting with new recipes in the kitchen. From the fiery cayenne sauce and a milder jalapeno one they launched with, the Black Mamba range has steadily expanded. The super-hot habanero sauce is a nod to Castellanos’s Latin American roots, as is the seductively smoky chipotle sauce. When a distributor told Castellanos that pesto was all the rage in Cape Town, they developed cracker-friendly basil cayenne and coriander jalapeno pestos. The beetroot ginger and spicy mango chutneys offer another mild alternative for those who aren’t hard-core chilli aficionados.
Although Black Mamba is stocked in various gourmet stores in South Africa and at the Swazi Candles Complex in Swaziland, it’s Europe which has been the brand’s most important market – particularly the UK and Germany where fair trade products are popular. Castellanos says the brand appeals to three distinct buyers – “the chilli-heads” (those who like it hot), “the ethical foodies” (people who support fair trade principles) and the “health ambassadors” (people who buy organic for its perceived health benefits).
Castellanos wants Black Mamba be “a cult brand” – “I know we’re never going to be like Nando’s or Tabasco – and we’re not interested in that,” she says. “We don’t sell chilli sauce – we sell Black Mamba. It’s a concept, a lifestyle.”
An edited version of this article appeared in the 12 February 2017 edition of the Sunday Times.