Photos by Katie Noble
When Magbè Savané moved to New York City from Ivory Coast at age 19, starting her own business was not at the top of her agenda. Her ultimate goal was medical school. But, after living for a little over a year in New York, she was still working in a job braiding hair, struggling with the challenges of big city living, and mastering a new language. Magbè realized that she would have to get out of the city in order to focus on school and work toward her goals. So, she moved to New Hampshire where she attended a small, private college and focused on pre-med coursework.
In 2010, as she was finishing up her undergraduate work, she got married and the following year gave birth to her first son, Malick. While at home with the baby, she became frustrated with the lack of healthy beverage options for her family, searching store after store for wholesome alternatives to the sugary, watery juices so often marketed to children. “I was looking for a healthy alternative, not too much junk,” she says. “Every time we went to the store I couldn’t find anything special.” So, Magbè turned frustration into inspiration and decided to do it herself. She put medical school on hold, and her company Makomas was born. Named for her family—Ma for Magbè, ko for her husband, Kolo, ma for Malick, and s for her last name, Savané—Makomas was rooted in family tradition from the start.
When Magbè was eight and still living in Ivory Coast, she began helping her mother to make and sell juices as a way to earn money after her father died. Together, they made traditional drinks from hibiscus, baobab, and ginger, packaged them in plastic bags, and sold them around the neighborhood. As demand grew, they hired delivery staff who wore coolers on their backs and distributed the drinks to local shops and schools via bicycle.
Now, Magbè has undertaken this journey again here in Massachusetts, using the same traditional recipes her mother taught her, each of which uses three ingredients or less. The hibiscus flavor is made in the fashion of a tea by steeping the dried leaves and extracting the juice. The result is bright and tannic, highlighting the sweet-tart hibiscus flavor. Magbè also incorporated the flower into the Makomas logo as a symbol of something simple and pure, and made from the love of a family.
The ginger drink is made by juicing the ginger and also brings out the spicy bite that ginger lovers crave. “I usually have a ginger after each meal,” says Magbè, noting the root’s digestive properties. She also uses it to cook with. The baobab drink—Malick’s favorite—is made with the extract of seeds from Africa’s iconic baobab tree, also known as “the tree of life.” It has a surprising flavor, tart and rich all at once. Magbè sometimes grabs one as a nutritious breakfast when she doesn’t have time to cook.
And, these days, she is busier than ever. After about a year of making juices at home and gathering feedback from friends and family, she started taking business classes, found commercial kitchen space, and began selling at farmers markets and festivals. The events were a family affair, with Magbè, Kolo, and Malick each taking a flavor and having a friendly competition to see who could sell the most. The response was overwhelmingly positive. “People love it because the flavors are bold, they can feel and taste the ingredient, and they know exactly what’s inside,” says Magbè. “It’s just fresh, raw ingredients with no preservatives of any kind.”
Before long, Magbè decided it was time to bring Makomas to stores, but making the jump to this larger scale was not without its challenges. As she was nurturing her business, she was also growing her family—in 2013, she gave birth to a second son, Kasson. And, as Makomas owner and sole employee, she had to learn to do it all, from production, to marketing, to social media. “I did not major in business,” says Magbè, “I majored in biology and chemistry.” But, she figured out the business piece with a dose of passion and persistence, and a little help from Google, which helped her research everything from licensing requirements to sourcing sustainable ingredients.
She now gets hibiscus and baobab from Africa, and ginger from Hawaii, where the root is available year round. All ingredients are organic, which made the search that much harder, but she was determined to support small, sustainable farmers. “As much as I want to help the economy here, I want to do the same in Africa,” she says. As the business expands, Magbè hopes to work with more local farmers in Massachusetts as well.
Magbè is grateful for the help she has received from so many business experts and mentors, and particularly her husband who has been an essential source of support throughout. Malick is also behind his mother and her dedication to her work, helping Magbè to load bottles into the car for deliveries. “He can tell this means a lot to me,” she says, and she loves nothing more than to watch Malick grab a bottle for himself and share it with Kasson, whose favorite flavor is hibiscus tea. “It’s amazing to see my sons drinking it,” says Magbè.
Since the official launch in January, Makomas has continued to grow. Magbè’s drinks are in 19 Whole Foods stores along with many specialty shops. “I’m really, really excited,” she says. “It’s telling me that I’m doing something right.” As for medical school, it’s always a possibility. “I can always go back,” says Magbè. “I feel like I’m on a brand new road, and I want to see where it’s going.” In the coming year, Magbè hopes to continue with Makomas’ success and, to bring the journey full circle, bring her boys to Africa to introduce them to the people and places where it all began.
This story appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.