Claudia Castellanos (MBA 03), Founder of Black Mamba and President of the ESADE Alumni Johannesburg Chapter

November 19, 2020 2:46 pm

In our In&Out section, we talk to Claudia Castellanos about her business project in Eswatini and her recent appointment as president of the Esade Alumni Johannesburg Chapter

Planet, people, profit

In 2008, after several years of corporate life in Europe, Claudia came to Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) as a volunteer supporting the marketing project of a local craft company. After she arrived, she was inspired to learn how many social enterprises had a business model that included rural communities.

– How did the idea of creating Black Mamba Chilli come about, and what is your vision for it?
Joe, my boyfriend at the time and now my husband, had at some point started a hot sauce project and called it Black Mamba, but it never went anywhere. When he told me about it, I thought that with that name we could create an attractive brand and revive his project, including rural communities in a sustainable way. That’s how Black Mamba got started. Our vision is to create a brand that brings lovers of hot peppers and good food together with rural communities and show that it is possible to build a successful company while following the “triple bottom line” model: planet, people, profit.

– What are the peculiarities of this business?
I think we have three pillars that make us highly distinctive:
– A strong environmental ethos: The farmers we work with are trained in permaculture and regenerative agriculture through a partnership we have with a local NGO called Guba. Regenerative agriculture improves the condition of farmland and enhances biodiversity. It also ensures that all the ingredients we buy from the farmers are organic and grown without pesticides or chemical fertilisers. In addition, our products are packaged in glass (highly recyclable) and boxed in cardboard (biodegradable). We are always looking for ways to reduce our carbon footprint.
– A strong social ethos: We work with rural communities and 80% of our 14 employees are women. (In a patriarchal society like Eswatini, I firmly believe that it is important to be intentional about empowering women.) At the moment we are working with 60 farmers (most of whom are women) who each have an average of six dependents and who, on average, share their knowledge of permaculture with 11 people in their communities: this means that our positive impact reaches around 1,000 people in Eswatini.
– An interesting and modern brand: Black Mamba has African appeal, but it is also very modern and attractive. Moreover, our products are very high-quality (and have won many international awards, such as the Great Taste Award for three years in a row in the United Kingdom).

– What qualities do you think are necessary for developing a business idea nowadays? And what are the added challenges in Eswatini?
I believe that a business idea has to be backed up by market knowledge: it is important to know who can buy a new product or service and whether there is a gap that is not being satisfied in that market. I think that training in business development, or an MBA like the one I did at Esade, goes a long way towards giving you a global vision on how to transform an idea into a tangible business. In addition to knowledge and a strategic vision, I believe that an entrepreneur needs a large dose of energy, positivity and resilience.
In Eswatini, the added challenges are the distance from our main export markets and the size of the local market – in this country of 1.5 million people, 60% live below the poverty line – as well as the lack of government support: it is a small country with many difficulties and the government lacks the sort of resources you find elsewhere to support entrepreneurs.

– What has been the most difficult moment of your career? And the most rewarding?
The most difficult moments have always been related to a lack of finances. I think we would have grown much more quickly if we had had more capital. But one very rewarding moment is perhaps the most recent one: last week, Black Mamba closed an equity deal with an investment fund. This capital is going to help us grow our company and have an impact on the communities we work with. But there is nothing more rewarding than going to visit the farmers and seeing first-hand how working with Black Mamba has helped them improve their quality of life.


The joy of active networking

When she’s not working on her business project, Claudia is involved in the Esade alumni community in Africa. In fact, she is the president of the recently reopened Johannesburg Chapter.

– You are the president of the Johannesburg Chapter, which has been reorganised this year. What are your responsibilities in this role?
It is very exciting that we are reorganising the South African Chapter. My main role as president is to ensure that we have a cohesive, interesting and useful Chapter for all of our alumni members. We do this by holding networking sessions and organising social and academic events, and by always being available to connect members with each other.

– From a personal and professional point of view, what does it mean for you to perform this function?
The time I spent in Barcelona doing my MBA was a memorable time and I have always wanted to have a close relationship with my alma mater. Being the president of the Chapter has helped me reconnect with an institution that I cherish. From a professional point of view, it is a great opportunity for me to expand my network with interesting people in Africa.

– What do you think are the main challenges the Chapter is currently facing?
It is still a small Chapter, but I think we have great potential to grow. We would also like to encourage Esade to recruit more candidates from Southern Africa: in terms of potential, investment options and growth, Africa is now entering a golden age.

– What is the alumni community like in South Africa and what do you think they expect from this Chapter?
The South African Chapter is a great way to build connections among all the alumni who live in this part of the world. The Chapter is very diverse, with professionals in many sectors that greatly enrich our reach and potential. I believe the alumni community wants an active Chapter with interesting events and a very involved president. I will do my best not to disappoint them!