One wintry lunch break in 2002, graphic designer Joe Roques and his then-business partner Richard Armstrong were enjoying much-needed ham and cheese toasties. “I’m sick of spending all my time building other people’s brands,” said Roques in between mouthfuls. They’d soon resolved to create their own edgy, irreverent brand but were hamstrung by their location in rural Swaziland … and missing a product. Then the penny dropped. “This toastie could really use some chili sauce,” they agreed.
Sixteen years later, Black Mamba — now owned by Roques, 42, and his Colombian wife, Claudia Castellanos, 41 — provides a direct income for 40 Swazis and is available in places as diverse as Taiwan and Tennessee. Named after a snake so venomous it can kill an adult in an hour, the brand’s range has grown to include pestos, chutneys, pickles and pastes that showcase the founders’ Afro-American roots. Sales of 50,000 units in 2017 marked the business’ best year yet, and Black Mamba’s recent entry into the U.S. market takes it one step closer to becoming the “Red Bull of chili sauces,” as Roques puts it.
But back to the beginning. Once they’d agreed on a name and a brand ID, Black Mamba’s founders called on Roques’ chef sister, Molly, for assistance with their recipe. The young designers then began making version 1.0 of what would eventually become Black Mamba’s signature, award-winning Cayenne Chilli Sauce in the digs they shared with three other guys. (The stench meant they were soon homeless.) By Roques’ own admission, operations were “very bush” — they supplied one local supermarket, and only when they had stock. After a while, Armstrong fell by the wayside and, when Roques moved to London, Molly even took over for a bit. Before long the brand had fallen dormant.
If little Black Mamba is to survive and thrive, it needs a story as tongue-tingling as its contents.
Fast-forward to 2008, when Roques — back in Swaziland, having left London after the global financial crisis — met Castellanos, who’d come to the country (via a master’s in Barcelona and a corporate job in Italy) on a pro bono project for MBAs Without Borders. “I got a call from my soul to volunteer in Africa,” she says. A four-month placement soon turned into a lifelong commitment as she fell in love with the tiny landlocked kingdom, its people (one in particular) and her work at Gone Rural, a fair-trade handcrafts business that employed 600 Swazi women. After discovering a few dusty bottles of Black Mamba in Roques’ basement, the lovebirds hit upon the idea of combining their respective passions for branding and fair-trade — and their shared fondness for chilis — into a single package.
The first six months were spent refreshing the brand, tweaking the recipe (they added loads of fresh herbs) and battling endless labeling and bottling niggles. The heartache was forgotten when they sold all 400 bottles of their first batch at the 2010 Bushfire music festival. Revelers’ enthusiasm for “the brand and the very hot flavor,” Castellanos says, convinced them to give the business a proper go.
Immediately they were confronted with the challenge of finding organic chilies in Swaziland. After the disappointment of having to buy a shipment from South Africa, they engaged with Sam Hodgson — one of the founders of permaculture NGO Guba (“to dig” in the local language) — to ensure a sustainable organic supply. Guba’s signature 12-month permaculture course equips subsistence farmers with a range of skills to make their farms more productive. “It’s been a real win-win,” says Hodgson of a relationship that has provided a significant financial boost for both the farmers and Guba itself, while also teaching valuable lessons about seasonality (farmers grow chills and basil in the summer and coriander in the winter) and planning ahead to meet supply targets. “We get great, flavorsome organic produce,” says Catellanos, “and the farmers get a proper income.”
Black Mamba’s first “factory” was a tiny cottage rented from Roques’ mother. In 2014 the small crew moved to spiffy new premises and spent the next year jumping through hoops to achieve FSC22000 certification for food safety. With that in the bag, they could — at long last — start exporting their products. Enter Alistair Leadbetter from U.K.-based fair-trade NGO and trading company Traidcraft, who discovered the sauce while visiting some Swazi crafters and spent the next year “cajoling [his] colleagues to take on Black Mamba.” The sauce is now available in the U.K., U.S., Europe, Taiwan and Australia.
The global hot sauce market is booming, but incredibly crowded. If little Black Mamba is to survive and thrive, it needs a story as tongue-tingling as its contents. Which brings us to the fair-trade label. Castellanos — who served as chairperson of Swaziland Fair Trade for four years — has “always believed that it was possible to do the right thing without an expensive label.” But, with a push from Leadbetter, she has conceded that she needs “that little label.” Black Mamba will be applying for a World Free Trade Organization guarantee later this year. According to Castellanos, they’re also on the hunt for “impact investors” who will help them access the capital (conventional methods are “very expensive in Swaziland”) they need to take things to the next level.
If global success follows, the company will be a beacon for small-scale farmers throughout Swaziland. “Our low-quantity, high-quality model could work for loads of other products,” says Castellanos, who is already mentoring a local peanut butter startup and would love to help others. Whatever happens, Roques says the business will never stray far from its roots. Black Mamba, he says, will always “be made in Swaziland and go great with a ham and cheese toastie.”
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