From Soweto to the world: Kasi-born entrepreneur’s pet food hits US market

Published Oct 19, 2022


Johannesburg - Growing up in Soweto most dogs ate whatever was left over from our daily meals, but times change and Soweto-born CEO and founder of pet food brand Maneli Pets, Nhlanhla Dlamini (38) is spearheading the change on a global scale.

When you see Dlamini’s email signature it has two contact numbers, one for South Africa and another for America, truly a sign that he is just as at home in the US as he is in South Africa. A pioneer, Dlamini’s business is the first South African company to export pet food to the US.

Maneli Pets treats can be found in over 12 countries all over the world such as the USA, UK, Europe, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Maneli Pets through its brands supplies international markets with pet food Picture: Supplied

In building his business Dlamini has leveraged South Africa’s reputation in the international market as a quality meat producer.

“I realised that there was a massive global market that we needed to tap into one that we have been kind of ignoring as South Africans,” he said.

“As South Africans, I think we know that we have tremendous proteins. Our beef is delicious, our lamb is really really good, and our ostrich is phenomenal and we take it for granted because it’s what we’ve known all our lives. Every year when international visitors come to SA they remark about how good our meat is and how well-priced it is.”

Maneli Pets produces a large variety of pet treats for their various local and international clientele. Their range of premium pet food and treat products currently includes mouthwatering high-protein chews, bites and snacks in the form of freeze-dried meats, tendons and bones.

Dlamini’s foray into the American market is truly game-changing and his product has been well-received by the market with the US being Maneli Pets’ largest market outside of South Africa.

“We are on Amazon, we sell on and we sell in just over 1 000 pet shops around the US. We have various sub-distributors in the North East, in Minnesota and another in New Mexico and one in the Pacific Northwest and one in Texas. And that's only in three or four years in the US market so it's still early days,” said Dlamini.

Dlamini has accomplished all this from his factory in Johannesburg, South Africa. A facility that has been built with sustainability in mind, something which is very close to Dlamini’s heart.

“The factory that we have has solar panels that supply 30% - 40% of our power, we reticulate within the facility as much as possible before we put it out into the municipal system. Our packaging is recyclable and we try to waste as little of on the raw material that we get in as possible”.

“We do that because it is the right thing to do but it also does lead to commercial benefits because a lot of millennials are looking for more sustainable businesses or brands to get behind and that's a strong selling point for us”.

Dlamini’s journey has been one of hard work and sacrifice. Growing up in Mofolo, Soweto, from a very young age, Dlamini had been cognisant of what his parents had to give up to make sure that he would get a good education.

Dlamini did his part by applying himself to his school work which would see him warm scholarships and bursaries to further and complete his studies.

”I’ve been on scholarships for most of my life so I kind of had to choose courses and university options that spoke to more scholarships and bursaries. So when I left high school in 2001, the fields that had bursaries were engineering, computer science or IT commerce/accounting and to a lesser extent medicine.

“I wanted to break the cycle of poverty that is prevalent in townships and the only way I could do that was through education and employment. I realised that very early on so I just threw myself into my studies, to validate the sacrifices my parents had made for my sister and me,” said Dlamini.

Dlamini would go on to have a stellar academic career and now holds a Bachelor of Commerce (with Distinction) from Wits University, a Postgraduate Diploma in Management (with Distinction) from the Wits Business School, an MPhil in Development Studies from Oxford University, and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

His Master’s thesis on youth unemployment in South Africa earned him a Distinction at Oxford. He is a Goldman Sachs Global Leader and a 2008 Rhodes Scholar. He was also recognised as one of the 100 global Leaders of Tomorrow at the St Gallen Symposium in 2011.

Dlamini has also found ways to pay it forward and during his five-year stint working for McKinsey & Company, he established the McKinsey-GoldenKey scholarships for the top-achieving students at Wits University and the University of Cape Town.

Dlamini’s achievements have not prevented him from being able to acknowledge the needs of his fellow man and this in part is the reason he embarked on his entrepreneurial journey, he had the desire to do work that would have a social impact.

“The problems we need to solve are around unemployment, especially youth unemployment, around slow growth which has been plaguing us for the better part of two decades and inclusive growth, so I decided to leave consulting around 2015 to try to take a stab at entrepreneurship.

“The reason I did that was because the industrial sector is labour absorptive and creates lots of jobs than any entrepreneurial idea in the tech sector, you make a lot of money but won’t create a lot of jobs.”

The vision he had in 2016 seems to be coming to fruition, as Maneli Pets now employs about 50 individuals.

Dlamini wants to see Maneli Pets grow into the largest exporter of pet products globally. He also hopes to emulate the success of Nando’s, a South African brand that is as well regarded internationally as it is locally and hopes for more success stories like that of Nando’s coming out of his home country.

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