South African social entrepreneur Lufefe Nomjana has built his spinach empire (Espinaca Innovations) from incredibly humble beginnings. In 2011 with just 40 rand and some spinach leaves from a community garden where he was volunteering, Nomjana made his first spinach-infused loaves from his neighbour's oven. Nomjana had noticed that the spinach in the garden grew quickly and prolifically and wanted to find a way of using it to make healthy food.
“I put on my thinking cap as to what it is I can do for Khayelitsha and I needed to know what was the problem,” says Nomjana. “The problem at that time was unhealthy eating and unhealthy lifestyle, and that then leads to unhealthy activity such as what we see.”
Nomjana volunteered at a hospital to find out more about to improve people’s health through good eating habits. Then, with his neighbour's oven, he began baking four loaves of spinach bread overnight and selling them door-to-door the next day. The demand for the bread and his reputation in the area began to grow like the leaves in the garden and he soon became known as the Spinach King.
“When I started no one thought that Khayelitsha would accept such a concept,” says Nomjana.
By 2013, demand was so high that Nomjana approached a manager of a Spar (a South African retailer) and asked if he could use the ovens there in exchange for a supply of his loaves. His capacity to produce went from a handful to 200 loaves per day.
In the years between now and then, Nomjana has won several awards, launched successful crowdfunding campaigns and still has plans to open a full-scale factory. The most recent addition to his spinach kingdom is the Spinach King Healthy Food Cafe near the Khayelitsha Mall, which was sponsored by Virgin Active SA (the container itself was sponsored by Safmarine), the exterior designed by Tsai Design Studio and the interior by local design entrepreneurs Jesse Ede and James Bisset of JesseJames.
“It’s really such a wholesome project, the whole sustainability of it is fantastic,” says Bisset. “We put a lot of effort in for all our clients, but this particular client we were really stoked to work for.”
Inside the 40ft container, Ede and Bisset developed a basket weave as a design motif with an African theme – one that would feel culturally relevant and empathetic to Nomjana’s story, and that would fit well in the context of Khayelitsha. The weave is carried through the cafe counter, the floor and in the details of the lights and logo. Both designers spent time with Nomjana in Khayelitsha and were impressed with how the community is embracing their Spinach King.
“For their culture, to eat is to be healthy, not what you eat.” says Ede. “So here comes a guy Lufefe with this amazing product spinach bread and feta and cheese muffins, which we in Cape Town take for granted, but over there it’s one of a kind and he’s really doing something unique and different that no one else has done. To be the first healthy food cafe is really saying something and the fact that the people and the community are responding really well to it is really exciting.”
The Spinach King Healthy Food Cafe sells Nomjana’s signature spinach loaves, as well as low GI loaves, spinach and feta muffins, sandwiches and juices.
“I put on my thinking cap as to what it is I can do for Khayelitsha and I needed to know what was the problem,” says Nomjana the Spinach King. “The problem at that time was unhealthy eating and unhealthy lifestyle, and that then leads to unhealthy activity such as what we see.”