For South African entrepreneur Thejes Khan, balancing motherhood with her candy company, Forest Fairies Sweets, has not always been easy – especially when her son was diagnosed with Type I diabetes at 8 years old.
“My immediate reaction was that I was killing my son with sugar,” she says. “I blamed myself. I looked at sugar and thought ‘You are my enemy.’” Khan spent hours googling Type I diabetes and sugar-free products for her son. She tried nearly every product on the market in South Africa and realized none of them tasted as good as they could.
As a self-taught chef, Khan decided to experiment with recipes at home. Her son was the one who eventually encouraged her to bring the products to market. He was convinced that no other product tasted better, and her customers would love it.
Forest Fairies launched the line in 2019, and demand has grown rapidly. “It’s a range of 10 products, chocolates and other sweets,” Khan says. “And the response has been overwhelming. People are really loving it. You can taste these products and think they have sugar.”
That innovative, creative thinking has been at the heart of Forest Fairies Sweets since its founding in 2003.
Khan grew up in Durban, South Africa, with three sisters and a single mother who was also an entrepreneur. She watched her mother struggle and was determined to build a better life for herself by earning her degree. Unfortunately, after only a few months, she realized she could not afford it.
But Khan did not let that stop her from following in her mother’s entrepreneurial footsteps. On a trip to Johannesburg, Khan stopped at a small farm stall and purchased a nougat bar. She took one bite and fell in love with it. At that moment, she decided she wanted to build a gourmet candy company that would tap into South Africa’s love of nougat in contrast to U.S. and European brands focused on chocolate.
Khan started Forest Fairies from her kitchen with her domestic help and a goal of making 100 nougat bars a week. Today, the company employs 40 people and produces thousands of nougat bars and other specialty candies weekly—like almond toffee, Brazil nut toffee and coconut wheels in gold foil—for hotels, spice shops and online customers.
“We manufacture the best nougat in the world,” she says confidently. “We are the preferred supplier to hotels like the Sun International, Sheraton, Fairmount and Legacy Hotel groups. International guests love our products. All the executive chefs want our products.”
A year ago, Khan connected with WEConnect International to pursue her certification and to learn from other female entrepreneurs. In that short amount of time, Khan says she feels more confident in herself and public speaking. She has identified more opportunities for growth and learned more about how to better market Forest Fairies. Perhaps most important for Khan, WEConnect International has helped her move past her insecurities around the absence of a degree.
“It’s the perfect launching pad for a person like me, who didn’t have any tertiary education,” Khan explains. “WEConnect International has allowed me to move to the next level and enabled me to rethink my experience.”
For Khan, the next level involves promoting her sugar-free product line more aggressively and launching a subsidiary health foods business also inspired by her son’s diabetes. As a food manufacturer and food safety professional, Khan knows how to find hidden sugars that could affect her son’s overall blood sugar levels. In the same way that she experimented with sugar-free desserts at home, she did the same with dinner, grinding flaxseeds, sunflower seeds and nuts down to a fine powder for a low-carb option.
These creative and nutritional developments won Forest Fairies Sweets WEConnect International’s 2021 Rise to the Challenge Agriculture Award.
Almost as quickly as Khan’s confidence has grown, so has civil unrest in Durban—and it worries her. Despite some uncertainty around the business’ future, Khan is proud of how far they have come.
“It’s been a tough journey, but exciting,” she says. “Without a doubt, we are one of the best South Africa has to offer.”