Her warehouse shelves may be empty, but Incasa Foods CEO Thabisile Danisa is fully stocked in optimism – a useful commodity amid the Covid-19 crisis, where 75% of SMEs are not expected to survive a lockdown of longer than three months, according to an April research report by Sasfin and sme.africa.

Danisa is among the SMEs whose business has ground to a halt, as her usual retailers are either closed during lockdown or are not able to let her undertake a key marketing component of her business: in-store promotions of her homemade sauces, curry pastes and grain milks.

As a hardened entrepreneur, she’s used to dealing with the unexpected, from losing her entire income to investors pulling out suddenly. So she’s cautiously optimistic that her business will not only survive lockdown but also grow once she’s able to start servicing the new clients she has waiting in the wings.

Danisa’s also taking a sanguine stance on being at home with her husband and four children, viewing it as a “blessing in disguise, as I get to be really be present with them” – a luxury she’s not been able to afford since starting Incasa Foods in 2015.

Family is all-important to this self-starter, whose business was born out of her dedication to her childrens’ well-being.

After she and her husband both lost their jobs in 2011, they moved from the North West back home to Kenterton Kwadumisa, a rural part of KwaZulu-Natal. It was here that Danisa began making healthy, natural food for the first time since her two-year study of Hospitality Management at the Durban University of Technology ended a decade before.

She was motivated by wanting to make every Rand stretch further, providing her family with healthy, natural food and trying to treat her youngest child’s eczema by cutting out preservatives and processed foods.

“Neighbours could not stop commenting about the aroma that came from my house in the afternoons, and my guests could not get enough of my food,” she recalls. “So I started making sauces and curry pastes for my family and friends, until my husband suggested I try sell them.”

The name for her business came easily: “Nca is the Xhosa word for flavour, or tasty, and it’s the sound people make when licking their fingers after eating my food, and so Incasa Foods came naturally.”

The rest of the start-up process, however, was not so easy. Her first major obstacle was that no credible retailers would stock her products because they had not been tested and approved by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS). After going through that gruelling process, she had another challenge: creating branding with zero budget.

After overcoming this and the other obstacles she faced with having no start-up capital, Danisa’s small business was just getting on track when the feisty entrepreneur was dealt another heavy blow: an investor withdrew much-needed expansion funding at the eleventh hour. “The stress resulted in a spasm in my back that was so bad I was immobile – my family had to carry me like a little baby to the doctor’s rooms.”

Dealing with pain 24/7 and not being able to work plunged Danisa further into despair. Just when she was at breaking point, she managed to rally. “I realised that I could not let my family down by giving in; life goes on and so must I.”

Since then, Incasa Foods has grown to employ one full-time and two part-time employees, and distributes products via three KwaZulu-Natal retailers with more outlets in the pipeline after lockdown.

Optimistic as she is, Danisa is under no illusion about how tough the months ahead are going to be, but she’s again looking to her family for the strength: “I started Incasa Foods with the vision of creating a legacy for my kids and generations to come, and there are valuable lessons to be learnt for my kids as they see me endure it all.”

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