South Africa is known to be a beer-loving country, however, Ditshego (also known as Dee) Sedikela wants to get more South Africans drinking exotic teas. Sedikela is the owner of five The Tea Merchant stores located in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Her stores located at Clearwater Mall, Cresta, Woodlands, Dainfern and Fourways Mall, offer over 90 different blends of tea, sourced mostly from China and India and with tea accessories from Europe. The different tea blends include exotic specialities such as Japan Sencha Makoto, Earl Grey and Kusmi tea.
The Tea Merchant brand is a seven-year-old franchise, founded by Belinda Tobiansky and Carin Silberman. The franchise’s footprint extends from Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban, to Cape Town and Port Elizabeth and online with an e-commerce store.
For Sedikela, venturing into the tea business was no accident. A lifelong tea enthusiast and collector, she was already collecting different types of teas both locally and internationally during her travels.
Sedikela says she fell in love with the tea brand the first time she walked through one of their stores.
“Since university, I’ve always aspired to be an entrepreneur. I’m a tea lover and collector, all it took was for me to step into the Tea Merchant store to find my calling. I had to be part of the business, I had to own a tea store.”
A growing industry with opportunities
Tea is a popular beverage with a growing market. According to a report by Unilever because of its affordability and health benefits, tea is one of the most consumed drink among South Africa households.
Sedikela says the market is growing but is still predominately limited to black and Rooibos tea.
“Black tea being the most consumed tea in the country while Rooibos, which is locally grown, is a favorite amongst those who prefer caffeine-free tea. Internationally tea is the second most consumed beverage after water which indicates that other nations are exposed to different flavors and blends as opposed to black tea and Rooibos in SA.”
“We also supply our teas to a couple of restaurants and word of mouth has been key to getting our brand known”
The ‘everyman’ drink
While her product is considered a niche product, Sedikela says she hopes to introduce her exotic blends to as wide a market as possible.
This is made clear in both the clientele she is targeting and marketing strategies, she says.
“We have pensioners, students and children who enjoy our different tea flavors. Tea isn’t gender, race or age specific. Individuals who are experimental with their tea and tea flavors love and live in our stores.
“We use mainstream advertising and marketing channels. We also supply our teas to a couple of restaurants and word of mouth has been key to getting our brand known,” she says.
Black females in the franchising sector continue to be something of a scarcity, however, Sedikela says the model and the sector to be a perfect fit for her.
The Tea Merchant business model is made up of equal partnership between the group franchisors and the franchisees. As a result, Sedikela says she had support while still finding her feet.
Initially, her limited knowledge of the retail industry did present challenges. However, Sedikela says forming the right partnerships and easy access to industry experts was the answer to overcoming these challenges.
“My decision was purely based on the fact that my partner had immense experience in retail and the tea industry. I’ve learnt so much from him and having him as a partner minimized some of the hardships that startup entrepreneurs have to contend with in their first few months if not years of starting a business.”
She also believes that it is an ideal business model for individuals who are seeking to venture into business for the first time.
“Research the market, know everything there is to know about the market you want to participate in. It’s very important to understand every element of the business that one is considering going into. With everything in life, find something that resonates with your being and you may never feel like you are going to work.”
Despite the advantages of the sector, Sedikela says she didn’t exactly find a “welcome mat” going into the sector.
“As a young black woman you are always doubted and people feel they can take advantage of you. I’ve had to grow a thick skin and have learnt to be more assertive.
Surviving in a tough economy
Although she says the market has responded positively to The Tea Merchant franchise brand Sedikela says the country’s economic conditions have put a strain on the business.
“In the past 2 years the yearly sales have decreased even though for most consumers tea is not deemed as a luxury item,” she says.
However, Sedikela says she managed to grow her venture and has found other ways to substitute the loss in sales in order to survive the unstable economic conditions.
She adds that being more than just a tea store and also offering tea accessories such as pots, infusers and utensils has also worked in her favour.
“With five stores in two years, it’s safe to say we have expanded. I’m content with five stores at the moment as the challenge now is to improve the customer experience, retain customers and grow within this industry,” she says.