Entrepreneurship from healthier food: Profiling Dr Pulane Nkhabutlane and the SMA2RT FOODS project

As part of the activities related to the FemBioBiz Acceleration Programme, SANBio is profiling female bioscientists, bioentrepreneurs and organisations working in the bioinnovation space.

The National University of Lesotho (NUL) in partnership with University of Pretoria (UP) and Botswana University of Agriculture and Natural Sciences (BUAN) were awarded a R1 million seed grant to start nutrition projects in their respective universities by SANBio/BioFISA II. Part of the project involves the National University of Lesotho supporting the establishment of an incubation centre which will offer training and support in entrepreneurship and creating small businesses and will further train graduates to optimize the nutritional value and sensory properties of food products to meet the needs of consumers.

Dr Pulane Nkhabutlane is a business leader in National University of Lesotho SMA2RT FOODS, working locally with three graduate partners (Mrs Palesa Monoto, Mrs Nthabiseng Tlhanyane, Mrs Maleshoane Pokatha) working as accounting, marketing and product managers respectively. “I am a co-recipient for the grant awarded to the three Universities, and I am a project leader of the team running the business in the National University of Lesotho,” explained Dr Nkhabutlane.

The two major problems that the business is solving are that of malnutrition and unemployment. Traditionally rural communities in Lesotho prepared nutritious snacks and meals from indigenous cereals, legumes, fruits and vegetable crops.  However, with urbanization and adoption of Western type foods, consumption of such diets has declined, in favor of convenient on-the-go, easy-to-prepare or ready-to-eat products. Snack foods available to consumers, while often tasty, are also often high in fat, sugar and salt but poor in protein, micronutrients and dietary fiber.  The busy lifestyle of Basotho coupled with working mothers in almost every household has led to poor eating habits and therefore a high rate of malnutrition in Lesotho. “Nowadays people are slowly becoming aware of health problems due to poor eating habits and thus we believe there is a demand for Safe, Market ready, Acceptable African, Ready-to-eat/use, Trendy (SMA2RT) healthy snack foods,” Dr Nkhabutlane adds.

The National University of Lesotho produces hundreds of graduates every year from different programmes. However, these graduates often cannot find jobs for a number of years and remain unemployed. In addressing unemployment, the business has established an incubation center for graduates to be equipped with business skills within the University premises for self-employment when they leave the University.

Basotho women are underprivileged in many ways, because in the local culture women perform most of the domestic work for their husbands and children. They perform work such as cooking, cleaning the house, collecting wood and water from long distances, as well as working in the fields. These jobs require a lot of labour but do not pay, and in the past women were supported by their husbands many of whom were working in South African mines, but this is not the case anymore.

The business is still at the initial stages, and setting up the incubator has not been easy as it involves a number of university departments, from the university management and the faculty business hub to the maintenance department for renovations of the space provided. Communication has proved to be the key in coordinating all the departments and central to the success of the establishment of the business. It is therefore evident that there is also a need for more training on running the incubation centre, and this may involve paying for a trip to visit other universities experienced in running incubation centres.

Despite these setbacks the project has already started achieving and the team members have not stopped dreaming ahead. So far the project has successfully established the collaboration of universities involved, collaboration within the University of Lesotho, and involvement of other national stakeholders, such as Basotho Enterprises Development Corporation (BEDCO) and Lesotho National Development Corporation (LNDC).

Envisioning the project in the next five years, Dr Nkhabutlane says the project started with only three graduates but anticipates involvement of at least twenty from the Consumer Science Department. This is the first incubation centre at NUL and they hope to expand the idea to the entire University in the next five years for all other programmes.

Dr Nkhabutlane encourages women to dare to dream: “I am therefore encouraging other women in Lesotho to start their own businesses to earn income for payment of their families’ food and clothing, and very importantly their children’s education. Women should be aware that they are naturally incubators to bring new life, that they can nurture and guide until it brings life changing fruits to all society. It is our responsibility as women to also conceive and give birth to business ideas that we can make reality and in doing so change lives.”