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Growing women in food supply through tech

Johannesburg, South Africa (17 May 2024) — When 65-year-old Saskia Emary took over as the owner of Uncanny Food in 2018, after its founding owner Edi Franco decided to retire, she had already served six years as the General Manager of a business she had never originally intended to join.

In 2009, working as an Accounting Consultant for small businesses, she was called by a mutual associate of Uncanny Food to help with an audit project. After a short while, having shown an exceptional understanding and affinity for the business, she was asked to stay on as General Manager.

“I was already running my own business, and never envisioned anything other than a routine consulting project,” Saskia says. “The next thing I knew, I was brought in full-time to help manage the business. Then, one morning in 2018, Edi Franco came in and asked a strange question – how much the business was making every month. He left shortly after and then invited me to his house for lunch that afternoon.

“He wanted to retire with immediate effect. He offered me a deal that I could continue paying his salary for a certain number of years, after which the business would be mine. It was the first time I was left speechless, and for anyone that knows me, that says something,” she says.

Saskia describes herself as having a “bombastic” personality, not too far off from her larger-than-life persona, immediately felt by anyone who meets her. Her being rendered so speechless meant the full weight of her sudden new role as the owner of one of a handful of female-led food and dairy companies in Cape Town was not lost on her.

She was also one of a growing group of South African female commercial fleet operators at a networking lunch recently hosted by Webfleet, Bridgestone’s globally trusted fleet management solutions company.

Uncanny Food is a relatively small company of just 18 people, mainly drivers and warehouse staff, as well as a tight administrative team, including her son Jon-Jon Emary who manages the complex incoming orders every day.

Sourcing directly from dairies the company provides milk, cheese, eggs, yoghurt, ice cream and juice to customers across the Cape Town Metro and some surrounding areas. While the big retail chains have their own direct relationships with dairies, Uncanny Food serves as a vital link between dairies and restaurants, schools, hotels and small local shops, including the townships and informal settlements.

Uncanny Food has redefined convenience by accepting orders for about 13 hours longer than their competitors, with invoices processed by 5am, and deliveries extending throughout the morning across Cape Town, including some of the most challenging areas.

“We try our best to support our customers in every way we can, especially in the informal settlements, where they have no other way of getting access to reliable stock,” says Saskia.

When the Pandemic hit in 2020, just two years into her ownership, the world economy tanked, and to protect her business and staff without any state assistance, Saskia was forced to make a change.

It was her son Jon-Jon who first came up with the idea of installing the Webfleet smart telematics system into all 11 of Uncanny Food’s vehicles, to better control costs and elevate the service provided to customers.

While some drivers initially resisted, through interactive training, it soon became clear that the system wasn’t a punitive spying tool, but a way to better protect vehicles, customer product, and drivers, as well as other road users.

“The ever-expanding array of Webfleet’s functionality is just as relevant for large fleets as it is for smaller ones,” says Justin Manson, Webfleet Solutions Sales Director. “From advanced real-time route planning, onboard (and remote) systems monitoring to rear and front cameras, detailed incident reports, and an intuitive communications dashboard, everything is designed to progressively enhance business efficiencies over time.”

Saskia emphasises that constantly increasing fuel prices, one of the biggest inputs to transport operations, are putting massive pressure on profitability in the transport industry. “Telematics, powered by rich data and artificial intelligence reporting platforms, is no longer an optional nice-to-have but an essential part of business sustainability,” says Saskia.

Uncanny Food has been able to substantially cut costs, while helping drivers to improve their driving habits, thanks to detailed driver behaviour indicators, like harsh braking, sharp steering and over-revving.

Accurate time estimates have drastically reduced delivery times, but importantly instilled consistency and an added level of trust with customers. “I think it was when we had our first accident after implementing telematics, and the data clearly showed that the driver was not in the wrong, that we started to gain overwhelming buy-in from the drivers,” says Saskia.

“Being one of just a few women in this tough male-dominated industry is not easy, but I have learned that if I stay true to myself, I can hold my own,” she adds. “As a woman in transport, I may not be able to do the same physically demanding work that men do, but I’m able to stay competitive by constantly evolving through a unique service, meeting our customers where they are and leveraging technology,” Saskia concludes.