Edward Moshole was destined for a life as a cleaner in a factory; until inspiration came on a breath of fresh cherry-scented air in a storage room surrounded by detergents. Last year the former cleaner sold 70,000 bottles of detergent a month to the largest retail shopping chains in South Africa, worth about R12 million ($1 million) a year.
“A broomstick is what started my business. It was the only thing that I owned… Getting a job as a cleaner at Enterprise changed my life; them giving me the boots and overalls and saying ‘here clean’. I could feel in my heart I wanted to be something more,” he says.
With humble beginnings in the small township of Gapane, a place few have heard of in the Limpopo province of South Africa, Moshole’s story is uncommon. He grew up without parents from the age of 16 and failed eighth grade five years in a row. Moshole says when he was young he never dreamed he could become a millionaire.
His life changed when he moved to Cape Town to live with his brother. He says the move woke him up. Moshole finished his schooling and became a cleaner in a factory run by food chain Enterprise. In this factory, in a two-square-meter storage room that smelled of cherries; among piles of detergent, bleach, cleaners and soaps, Moshole had an idea.
“Getting into that store room, I could see that the quality doesn’t measure the performance of the cleaners. I could improve things. I could see myself becoming a detergent manufacturing champion,” he says.
It began with $6 and a broom stick says Moshole. The then cleaner went directly to a manufacturer and bought a five-liter bleach bottle. His first sales pitch was short and simple.
“I went to an ordinary person and said ‘look I’ve got detergent, I’ve got cleaner and they go for R15 ($1.20) a litre’,” he says.
Moshole’s part-time business took off. He targeted his co-workers who finished work too late to make it to the shops. A few months later, Moshole began selling door-to-door. He moved to spaza shops and sold to neighbors.
Moshole soon grew tired of the life of a middleman salesman and decided to create his own brand. With the money he earned, he bought a pile of 25-litre spice drums from Enterprise for around $1 each. He spent the following weekends churning detergent with a homemade metal mixer in his backyard.
“At the end of the day my hands were blistered,” he recalls.
For three years, Moshole toiled over his blue spice drums. His brand, Chem-Fresh, garnered the interests of supermarket giant Pick n Pay, owned by Raymond Ackerman, who is ranked 38th on Forbes’ list of richest Africans. It was the big break that Moshole needed.
The deal took seven years to sign. Along the way, Moshole learnt some hard lessons about mass-market production. One of them was to change from an informal backyard business to a formal one. He named his company ‘ebinter’ and started selling his Chem-Fresh products through it. Moshole also learnt he needed to become an accountant as well as a salesman. But it was the competition in the detergent business that was hardest to handle.
“Retail must retain a formal market. It’s tough. You negotiate with a buyer who takes 300 calls a day from others who supply the same product as you. Then there you are competing with the multinationals and then you are competing with the companies who own no-name brands. Your product needs to be cheap and needs to be of a consistent high quality,” says Moshole.
These days, Moshole’s factory in Wynberg, an industrial sector a few kilometers outside of Sandton, is a far cry from his backyard. Thousands of plastic bottles are piled to the ceiling. A $90,000 mixer churns bath soaps and hand wash. Another mixer prepares bleach for the day. Moshole says it takes half an hour to produce 500 liters of Chem-Fresh bleach.
His clientele has now spread across supermarket chains Spar, Pick n Pay, Massmart and Dischem.
Despite landing these promising contracts the detergent maker remains humble. He keeps the broom that he started with as a reminder of where his dreams began, minus the brush which fell off a few years ago.
With $6 and a broomstick, Moshole began selling detergent to his colleagues, bottle by bottle. Now, he sells them in the thousands. What’s more, Moshole proudly claims he has never missed a delivery.