Mixing it up with Volkschem
With a background steeped in Science, mingled with a keen interest in manufacturing chemicals, in 2016, Omongwe Ramakoba joined forces with his wife, Amogelang Ramakoba, to start Volkschem.
However, it was not until five years later, in 2021, that the company finally started production.
Situated in Mogoditshane, Nkoyaphiri and specialising in cleaning and industrial chemicals, Volkschem produces: pine gel disinfectant cleaner, general dishwashing liquid soap, bleaches for both laundry and surface cleaning, hand soaps, engine coolants, engine cleaners, car wash soaps and drain cleaners just to mention a few.
Although his desire to produce top-quality products has taken its toll on his pocket, Ramakoba, 49, is determined to keep going; the Maun man is confident good times lie on the horizon…
Kindly introduce yourself?
I’m originally from Maun but I have stayed here in Gaborone for too long. I manage and run this company, Volkschem which is a chemical manufacturing business for both cleaning and industrial. We are a versatile, diversified upcoming business in this sector with a couple of products under our banner.
How did this come about?
I’m trained as a chemist. I have done Bachelor of Science Chemistry and Environmental Sciences from University of Botswana. As a promoter, I have worked at Barloworld Plascon in the production of paints, starting as a factory chemist to plant manager, so it’s been my livelihood.
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During my work life, I worked in designing and manufacturing of paint up to point of sale; so basically my background really played a role in me venturing into this. Manufacturing became a passion to me, even though I have done real estate, I’m more fascinated by manufacturing, instead of full employment I followed my passion.
And how is your passion treating you?
As much as it is exciting, it is a difficult undertaking! For the two years of our existence, we have pumped in P2.2 million, which is family money. Today, even if you can ask me to show the potential of growth, we still remain a growing industry because it’s kind of an expensive investment.
The raw materials and packaging are very expensive and designing the product itself is another costly exercise; you spend a lot of money before you can even breakthrough. So it’s something you have to sustain by being resilient and determined to move forward.
The acceptance of the product is even there as well as the cost of distribution to the market so it’s a challenge that requires a lot of work.
Where do you get your raw materials from?
We source our raw materials from South Africa, of which they get from China. We are looking at the fact that if we are to grow and increase production we will go directly to China to buy cheaper there. When it’s rough, we source locally from some guys who are bigger manufacturers and it’s quite expensive.
We would like to grow from the stage of acquiring raw materials at a cheaper rate for us to be able to increase our capacity and lower our costs, so that our products are lower in price and we are able to be competitive in the market.
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Speaking of being competitive, how have your products been received by the public?
We came into business very much aware of this situation. What we do is that when we design a product, we normally buy different import products to compare with, starting from the packaging and establish if our product is able to compete with all those products.
We try to make quality products competitive enough to stand up against international products. So we avoid using ‘Made in Botswana’ in bold or in the front of the package to avoid the customer immediately seeing it and moving away from the product – that’s how we counter the kind of thinking of shunning local products.
What makes Volkschem standout when it comes to manufacturing detergents?
The observation is there are very few manufacturers at retail level compared to us, most of them just manufacture the dish soap. But for us, we have gone on to manufacture other products which compete with South African brands on the shelves.
We believe we are competitive, because at the current moment we have our products at CBD Squaremart as a trial and they have been selling like fat cakes because of the quality. The feedback from the shop has been good, which means if we go to many retail shops we will be dominant players.
Speaking of supplying many retailers, what is your plant’s capacity?
Currently our capacity is low because we don’t have adequate machinery but we are working on getting funding for possible expansion. We manufacture 6, 000 to 7,000 litres a day of all our products combined. When you supply retail outlets you have to really go beyond that and it’s something we want to achieve.
We wanted to be sure of the quality of the product first, that’s why we put money in there as well as to test the market, so we are satisfied with all this.
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We also have ambitions to go outside and supply the international market in future.
Quite a dream! So, apart from costs, what other challenges are putting this dream in danger?
It’s market access because retail outlets here present a challenge since most management are from or in South Africa; it present a challenge for you to convince them to accept the local products. One retail store once told me they are only interested in South African brands and they dismissed us without even testing our product!
The market here in Botswana has turned into a dumping site for South African brands – there are so many cheap low quality products from SA and China. They are low quality compared to what we manufacture here and Batswana are into low price so it’s something that has been imbedded into Batswana that low price says it all without considering quality.
Your started operations in the middle of the pandemic – how have you survived?
We didn’t survive through any funding; we pumped our own money to get the business going. When you look at the market and projections, we made a P560, 000 loss and later that went to P300, 000 which shows we were in the deep end. Despite us still being down there, it shows we have improved in financial performance, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Even though we are below the waters, we believe with time we will improve more and be able to make profit. So it’s something that has been a sacrifice for us to start this business, it has been an investment and the determination to do this despite the initial losses knowing the future will be bright.
Let’s talk employment creation, how much have you contributed?
As of now we have five in Gaborone and two in Maun, we used to have 12 but had to cut due to losses. The numbers keep on changing, when the business is doing well and we have tenders we are able to hire more people.
Volkschem is taking part in the 2023 Botswana Consumer Fair, what do you aim to achieve?
We came in 2022 so this is our second year. There are quite a lot of objectives to achieve: we want to use the event to market and showcase our products to funders, exhibitors, customers and stakeholders.
We want to have long-term potential customers and we are here to sell the little that we can sell but we would like to identify customers who can help us expand the market. We want Batswana to be aware of our products.
I have met other exhibitors and we learn from them as well as customers who advise us, and we take note of that to improve. We are here for collaborations; we already have an agreement with a washing soap company to have their products at our shops, for us to support each other. Another thing is that we have agreed to team together to get raw materials from China in a cheaper way.
Are you aware of the #PUSHA BW campaign?
I’m still struggling to register with BITC; they have come to our factory but we are not there yet. We gate-crashed their event when they launched and managed to traverse the country with them. We understand the campaign and we would like to enroll more and get closer to them because if we can collaborate with them we can go far.
Finally, what does the future hold for Volkschem?
We are an expanding massive brand and we want to prove our self that we can manufacture internationally competitive products. Provided we manage to get funding we will surely expand and be able to sustainably exist for a very long time.
FULL NAMES: Omongwe Samuel Ramakoba
DOB: 7th January 1974
MARITAL STATUS: Married for 18.5 years
FAV MEAL: Pap & seswaa
HOLIDAY DESTINATION: Just travelling with my family is fine for me