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Kenako Biltong: ‘Taking part in a BBC programme really helped us spread the word’

Small business can: Kenako Biltong

By Lisa Smyth

Alanagh van Staden never imagined when she travelled to South Africa that it would change her whole life. As a newly qualified teacher, Alanagh was delighted when she was offered the opportunity to spend the summer of 2011 playing rugby in South Africa.

Within hours of arriving in the country, she met her future wife, Ilse van Staden, setting her on a path that would see them become television stars after setting up their own business, Kenako Biltong, making and selling a popular South African snack food.

The pair produce biltong, strips of beef preserved in spices using Ilse's grandmother's recipe, at Ballylagan Organic Farm in Straid outside Ballyclare.

Alanagh says: "I met Ilse eight hours after I got off the plane.

"I came back to Northern Ireland in September and Ilse came after me in October.

"She originally came over on a sport visa and couldn't work and then she was able to get something more permanent that meant she could be self-employed.

"That's where the whole idea for biltong came from.

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"It started out as a hobby where we made biltong for family and friends and it really grew from there.

"Ilse actually went to chef school before we met and then her little sister wanted to go to university but didn't want to go alone, so Ilse went along and did a short course in Afrikaans, but there wasn't a whole big need for that in Northern Ireland.

Ilse and Alanagh's award-winning Biltong product

"So, when she came here she did a few jobs as a chef working in a number of restaurants before catering on film sets, including Game Of Thrones.

"Then a friend put us in touch with Ballylagan and said they were looking for a butcher, so Ilse went off and did an organic butchery course."

Alanagh said the business was "ticking along" when she applied for the BBC Top of the Shop programme.

It brings fledgling food producers together to test out their products on the locals in Malhamdale in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales.

Alanagh and Ilse were delighted when they were subsequently crowned best up and coming artisan 2018 for their biltong.

It propelled the business to a level of success that Ilse and Alanagh could never have imagined.

"People were actually coming up to us in the street to say hello because they recognised us off the television," says Alanagh.

"It was surreal, since we went on the programme it has been madness.

"My mum ended up looking after our dogs for two weeks because we were so busy doing orders.

"Basically Ilse and I do everything, processing orders, packing orders, the accounts, making the biltong, we do everything.

"It got so crazy that at one point it was taking us 12 weeks to get orders out from when they were ordered.

"It was overwhelming, it was such a long waiting list, but most people were very understanding, although there were a few people who were particularly nasty and that's when I wondered what we were doing a couple of times.

"I was at work all day as a lecturer and all my colleagues were going home to relax and I was going home to process 100kg of beef.

"We made a lot of money which we used to invest back into the company, we bought an industrial drying machine.

"I am still working as a lecturer, I was originally a secondary school teacher and I think if I was still doing that I don't think I would have stayed in the job, but I love what I'm doing.

"It has been tough but it's been worth it, seeing something we developed and produce ourselves doing so well has been very satisfying."

As a result of appearing on the programme and the subsequent popularity of the brand, Ilse and Alanagh now bring their products to Balmoral Show and the Royal Highland Show.

Alanagh adds: "I love doing the markets, meeting customers, getting to explain our product.

"When we first started out, no-one knew anything about biltong or what it was and since the show that has changed, but it's still nice talking to people about it."

Alanagh says that in addition to appearing on Top of the Shop, word of mouth has been the best advertisement for the business.

Looking to the future, Ilse has plans to franchise the business.

The idea is that franchisees will use Chevrolet vans and sell biltong supplied by Kenako Biltong.

"At the moment it takes us 45 minutes to set up at markets but if we have a van all we will have to do is open up the hatch and away you go," says Alanagh.

"We would like to extend the business, but we don't want to go down the route of supplying the big boys like Tesco and Asda, mainly because that would mean using plastic packaging, which we don't want to do.

"We would rather do little deals and online orders and we hope we can reach more people that way."

Belfast Telegraph