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Honouring a great local female entrepreneur of the past

In this month of August, I thought I would relate the story of a local entrepreneur of yesteryear……..Mrs HS Ball, of the famous chutney brand! (You can read more on the Brandsouthafrica site

An Icon that survived a shipwreck

For South Africans abroad, there’s nothing quite like the taste of the mother country to bring on a wave of homesickness. Ouma rusks, Chappies bubble gum, biltong and boerewors are all sold in speciality shops across the world for the South African expat community. And probably the most iconic taste of all is that of Mrs HS Ball’s Chutney.

Manufactured in Johannesburg and exported to the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Germany, the chutney is a slightly sweet and spicy sauce made from apricots and peaches.It’s an essential accompaniment to a good curry or braai, it’s great on cheese sandwiches, and bobotie is unthinkable without it.

In 1852 when the SS Quanza was shipwrecked off East London, South Africa, en route from Canada to Australia, Henry James Adkins was  lucky to escape with his life but also the blueprint for what was to become one of South Africa’s most unique and priceless culinary icons. According to Desmond Ball, the emergence of the Chutney journey began when Henry James Adkins married Elizabeth Sarah Spalding in King William’s Town, settling in the nearby village of Fort Jackson to run a general dealership.

Sarah Adkins started making chutney commercially in about 1870. But she was no great shakes at brand-building, burdening her delicious condiment with the label, “Mrs Henry Adkins Senior, Colonial Chutney Manufacturer, Fort Jackson, Cape Colony.”    The Adkinses had seven sons and four daughters, one of whom was Amelia. Amelia married Herbert Saddleton Ball, a superintendent on the railways, and they moved to Johannesburg – taking her mother’s chutney recipe with her.

On HS Ball’s retirement the family moved to Cape Town, where Amelia started producing her mother’s chutney on a home-industry scale.

The Balls moved to the pretty coastal town of Fish Hoek, building or buying four houses within walking distance of each other. Mr and Mrs Ball senior lived in one, and sons Harold, Harry and Ernest in the others with their families. Here Mrs Ball started increasing her production.

The power of marketing

Amelia’s husband would take a few bottles every day by train into Cape Town to sell. It was on one of these sales trips that he met Fred Metter, a food importer. Metter started marketing the chutney, and improved sales so much that production could not be accommodated in the Fish Hoek house. The factory was moved three times, each time to bigger premises, eventually ending up in Diep River.

“When the main shareholders started getting on a bit, they sold the business to Brooke Bond Oxo, who later sold it to Unilever Foods, who still own the brand today.”

Desmond Ball still lives near Fish Hoek, where, he says, “We’ve been making chutney for five generations, and I want to keep the family tradition alive,”

Giving in to the demands of his neighbours, Ball dug up the old family recipe, kept from his days working in the factory as a boy, and started manufacturing on a small scale and selling it at the Porter Estate Produce Market in Tokai and the Triangle Market in Fish Hoek. (The Market at Porter estate is no longer operative)

Ball has called his chutney Amelia’s Chutney, in honour of his great-grandmother.

Amelia Ball died on 11 November 1962, at the age of 97. But her name lives on – on the millions of Mrs HS Ball’s Chutney labels, and on the less ubiquitous Amelia’s Chutney. Her descendants are determined to keep the legend alive.

Three things I learn from this story

  1. Ideas can be game changers, but they will remain largely unknown until translated into a product or service.
  2. It is often the case that a partnership opportunity can make a huge difference. (Think of the marketing capability of Fred Metter)
  3. It is possible for a local brand to become world famous, so don’t limit your dreaming!

Here’s to keeping it local, but leveraging it to the world!

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