An auto-immune disease that demands a highly nutritious diet triggered pageant titleholder and model Gina Athanassiou’s decision to fight hunger and malnutrition in children living in impoverished communities.
Athanassiou was crowned Miss South Africa Teen in 2000 when she was 16 and says her disease helped her understand the critical importance of nutrition.
“I realised the importance of eating highly nutritious foods early on and know that access to nutrition is not dependent on being able to afford the right food.
“I could eat the best, most nutritious food growing up in a middle-class home. But, as a model in Paris in 2002, it was not unusual to starve myself before a shoot.
“My autoimmune disease triggered something deep inside of me and I realised if you don’t have good basic nutrition, your immune system is forever compromised.”
This prompted her to start Holonathi in 2018. It means “grow with us” and is a food distributor and manufacturer of tasty, cost-effective, highly nutritional and balanced food products.
Since its inception, Holonathi has fed millions of hungry children and adults in Mzansi. “My passion has always been to help those in need and my dream is for our world to be one free of hunger and malnutrition,” Athanassiou says.
She explains how Holonathi was making nutrition affordable and accessible through her unique business model.
“We approach corporates or charities that are already helping feed communities and ask that, instead of giving money to the community and hoping that they use it to buy food, they buy food from Holonathi.”
Athanassiou says her biggest dream is to get her products out to as many children as possible.
“If they do not have [their] basic nutritional requirements [met], it will have a dire effect on their bodies, something that can’t be fixed later.”
Working on behalf of her corporate clients or charities, Athanassiou said that they were often required to do more than just fight hunger through delivering food.
“We help clients by setting up fully sustainable mobile kitchens to which we deliver our product. We identify community leaders to run the kitchen and train them on how to make the food.
“Sometimes people don’t have access to fresh water and it is necessary for us to fit JoJo tanks or solar panels. It all depends on the environment we’re operating in.”
Running an NPO during a public health crisis
Before Covid-19, Holonathi was Athanassiou’s sole business, feeding millions.
When the global health crisis hit, Athanassiou saw an opportunity. There was a space in the market to become an industry leader in food manufacturing.
“It gave me insight into the game as I travelled across the country to find good suppliers of maize, then bargained with farmers so their price fit my budget. I needed my finished product to be super cheap.
“I then outsourced the packing to a manufacturing plant. I discovered that it’s a competitive, dog-eat-dog environment, one that is extremely male-dominated. I don’t know one female-owned food manufacturing plant besides my own.”
She realised that it made sense from a business perspective for her to go down the value chain and break her dependence on outsourcing services. “That speaks back to food security. If you don’t control the full value chain, then you’re exposed and that’s a vulnerability.”
Holonathi is also fully compliant regarding food manufacturing certification and all products are endorsed by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and are Halaal-certified.
Athanassiou says she wants to help fight hunger by feeding communities and, where she can, support local businesses.
“The bigger the support for our product, the more we can support local businesses,” she said.