OMC attends World Confectionary Conference, Brussels 2022

Oh My Cake! attends World Confectionary Conference, Brussels 2022

Allan Gray Fellow Naseeha Hassen and her partner at Oh My Cake!, Camilla Hyson, recently returned from an incredible trip to Brussels for the World Confectionery Conference 2022 in which they had insightful visits to various bakeries and factories in the European capital.

Naseeha says, “All in all, it was an enriching and eye-opening trip, and we have returned with new ideas, a fresh perspective, and a collection of important contacts to help us level up our business. Thank you for this opportunity! We look forward to putting our learnings into action and making E Squared proud.”

Read firsthand about the Oh My Cake! (OMC) team’s experience in Brussels below:

A trip to Brussels & the magic we brought back

The opportunity to travel to Brussels for the World Confectionery Conference 2022 knocked on our door at the start of August, and we were inspired before we even boarded the plane. As an entrepreneur, your world can oftentimes feel small: days turned weeks, filled to the brim with the stresses of staff dynamics, inventory, website glitches, and the minutia of running a business 24/7. All this, whilst figuring out how to keep the lights on – quite literally, thanks to load shedding!

We knew that this conference would shake things up, open our minds and ignite new ways of thinking. Plus, Belgium is world-renowned for its chocolate – one of our most-utilised ingredients. And so, despite a rather tumultuous process to secure visas and several sleepless nights waiting to hear from the Belgian embassy, we were all beaming smiles when we boarded that plane to the capital of Europe. We’d all but memorized the speaker line-up for the conference and had our eyes set on a handful of speakers whom we were eager to talk to one-on-one. Plus, we’d been able to pre-book visits to three intriguing baking and decorating facilities in Brussels by reaching out to the owners via email, as well as a guided tour to enrich our knowledge of chocolate.

On our first day in the city, we visited a small, artisanal bakery founded in 2015. We’d identified this business on social media because the feel of the product offering and the strong presence of the founder herself embedded within their marketing, felt reminiscent of OMC! We wanted to compare growth stories. We met with the founder and CEO, and she introduced us to her staff and invited us into their production areas.

Our second day in Brussels was the conference day. Within a few minutes of completing our registration at the entrance desk, it was clear to us that we were rubbing shoulders with some of the biggest names in the confectionery industry, with the likes of Ferrero and Callebaut chocolate in the room. 

Innova Market Insights presented the top ten consumer trends in confectionery in 2022, which included plant-based consumption. It became clear to us that post-2020, consumers are being more selective than ever in what they choose to consume – they’re looking for new, amplified food experiences and ethically-sourced ingredients, and their personal values are intertwining with their purchasing decisions.

We learned that 70% of the world’s chocolate is sourced from west Africa and child labour rates are 46%. The lessons around sustainability in Africa, brand story and impact were profound. We secured connections with numerous speakers and delegates at the event and are inspired to host the next confectionery conference in South Africa to further connect with collaborators, mentors, suppliers, and entrepreneurs right here in the true home of chocolate – Africa.

Abuzz with new ideas and inspiration from the conference, we spent our weekend in Brussels on an eye-opening chocolate tour, where premium packaging, customer service, and a niche offering were our takeaways. We also visited the patisserie known for the best croissants in Brussels, Le Saint Aulaye. The owner prides himself on maintaining quality over everything else, despite an explicit demand for his products – made clear by the snaking queue at the front counter. He is proud to be selling the “most expensive croissant in Brussels” because he stands behind his quality and knows his customer has a discerning palate.

We took a fresh dose of perspective – along with a gigantic bag of breads and pastries, courtesy of Jean’s generosity – with us on our train ride home. We were deep in thought and discussion about some of the challenges that these bakeries themselves were facing at home in Europe: whilst the employment crisis and OMC’s challenges might feel tough back home, things are not necessarily all rosy in the first world.

At this point, we had seen snapshots of two businesses at two different life stages – a little team of six churning out cake orders from a tiny kitchen for the young and trendy, and the steady stream of upper- LSM customers queuing for their premium pastries at one of three branches of a larger chain. So, it was only fitting that we concluded our trip with a visit to a mass-scale factory, exporting cake decorations to Asia and America on our last day in Belgium. All kitted out in our food-safe coveralls, shoe covers, and hairnets, we were whisked away on a walking tour of the facility. 

On our return, we took some time to wander the cobble-stoned streets of Brussels one last time, collecting souvenirs and reflecting on our learnings. We indulged in some of the best Belgian waffles in the city before bidding “au revoir” to the European capital, with suitcases filled with chocolates and minds bursting with ideas.

As we returned to the organised chaos of running a business with 22 employees and round-the-clock order processing, we were sure to take the time to consolidate our key thoughts and learnings while they were still fresh. Questions arose around our impact story, ways to expand and hone in on our unique selling proposition, deciding what role mechanisation might play in creating efficiencies, revisiting our sourcing strategy, acting on opportunities identified by the conference, and operational capacitation. We also gleaned that we are doing well here in SA! In many ways and this validation has provided a welcome boost in energy, as we roll our sleeves up and get back into our business.

The economic differences between SA and Belgium have given us a fresh perspective and renewed vigour. Entrepreneurs in Brussels are riddled with hiring constraints, red tape, permits and barriers to entry, but our country – while not perfect – is brimming with opportunity. And we are perfectly positioned to grab this opportunity with both hands. We set out on this trip to expand our minds and to be inspired. The journey exceeded our expectations ten- fold! And yes, we may have returned to many issues like load shedding and the daily minutia, we now know a secret – we are doing a great job, and yet we’ve only just begun. 

We are grateful to E Squared for the opportunity to expand our minds, and with our new box of learnings and contacts, a healthy dose of exhilaration, and renewed determination, we are ready to take OMC to the next level.

Some takeaways from Venture Builder, Rita Baptista, who joined the team on their Belgium tour:

For most of us we live, work and sleep in a 20km to 30km radius, so when the opportunity arises to expand this radius it has knock-on ripple effects often greater than initially anticipated and expected.

  • Africans often look at Europe as the “best in….” everything well the learning is that they are not the “best at….” Everything and we are doing some things at Oh my Cake really, really well.
  • South Africa is much safer and a lot friendlier for young entrepreneurs, and the cost of failing and making mistakes is a lot cheaper in South Africa than abroad.
  • It was lovely spending quality time with Naseeha and Camilla, understanding their personalities, strengths, and vulnerabilities as well as seeing how they interact with one another was invaluable.
  • Naseeha and Camilla have made some truly amazing contacts!
  • It was so incredible attending the International conference and realising that E Squared was in the fortunate position to make this incredible event possible for OMC, very few businesses have the privilege to be aligned with an investor that offers this much support. Seeing the founders go from completely stressed to relaxed and starting to work “on OMC” was really great.