From family bonds to full-fledged business: Yococo is using dairy-free ice cream to serve love in scoops
Almost all of us have incredible food memories from our childhoods. Whether it’s a favourite meal, a snack, or even just an occasional treat shared with someone we loved, eating that food again can take us right back to those moments. A few of us get to take those food memories and the emotions they evoke and share them with the wider world. Johannesburg-based Yococo founder Sinenhlanhla Ndlela is one of those people.
Ndlela, known to most as “Sine”, knew almost nothing about ice cream when she started Yococo at the age of 23. At the time, she was working at a production house and feeling like she should be doing more with her life. The trouble was, she didn’t know what that was.
At the same time, Ndlela started taking dairy out of her diet on the advice of a health professional. She realised that the one thing she missed was ice cream. As well as wondering where she could get dairy-free ice cream from, she started thinking more deeply about why ice cream was so important to her.
“It was then that I realised that ice cream played a huge part in my childhood and that I associated it with love and connection,” she says.
Because Ndlela’s parents were still teenagers when she was born, she was largely raised by her maternal grandmother.
“But whenever my mom would come back from university, she would bring me ice cream,” the Yococo founder says. “It was such a big connection point for us and I realised that I wanted to recreate that feeling for other people.”
Ndlela also found herself wondering what people with dietary issues and restrictions did when they wanted ice cream and decided to start making her own.
At the time, she had no idea how to even get started, so turned to Google for research.
“I just gave it a go basically,” she says. “I searched a lot of things and tried out recipes.”
Ndlela’s early ice cream experiments all took place in the first apartment she moved into as an adult (which served as Yococo’s premises until last year) and her neighbours in the complex played a pivotal role in Yococo’s development.
“I would go stand outside the lift and whenever it opened, I'd just ask if anybody wanted to come and try my ice cream,” she says. “They would come and I would give them a survey so they could tell us what they did and didn’t like.”
Once Ndlela had a few recipes down, she got the chance to pitch Yococo to a Sunday food market and sell directly to consumers for the first time. From there, Yococo expanded to a few more food and lifestyle markets and started doing personal deliveries.
“I always want my customers to feel like they’re getting a gift or something special, even though it’s ice cream,” she says. “Google Maps is crucial to making those deliveries every day.”
In particular, Maps helps Ndlela plan her delivery routes to be as efficient as possible. As a small business owner pressed for time and resources, that efficiency is crucial.
According to Ndlela, there have been several challenges that she and the Yococo team have had to overcome along the way. COVID-19, in particular, brought about a lot of changes to the company’s dynamic.
“When COVID hit, there were a lot of changes,” she says. “We had to part ways with some people for a variety of reasons and that was a huge challenge for me because Yococo is made up of very specific kinds of people and you can’t just get anybody in to fill a vacant position.”
The entrepreneur also lists having to balance the love for what she does with the daily grind of running a business and growing profits as something she’s had to work hard on.
But, she says, the Yococo journey has brought out the best in her.
“Usually, I'm an introvert, but when it comes to Yococo, it's like somebody else comes out,” she says. “It feels so good. Even when it's tough, I always know that this is where I'm supposed to be.”