Made in Suriname: The Story Behind Willemsberg, the Makers of Wippy Peanut Butter
by Karen Rollins Apr 22, 2019
In 1960, Leo Willemsberg, the founder of agro-processing company Willemsberg, began importing white sugar into Suriname. But when the country started producing its own sugar, Leo had to find an alternative, and he chose shelled peanuts.
Twenty years later the next generation of Willemsbergs were at the helm of the business, and keen to start a more creative, entrepreneurial venture.
Leo’s daughter and Willemsberg’s managing director Susan Tjong A Hung, recalls: “My brother said, ‘why don’t we produce our own peanut butter?’ so instead of continuing to import peanuts for other peanut butter producers, we started our own factory”.
That was 1980 and the company started making two varieties of peanut butter; a creamy version and then a crunchy option with chunks of peanuts in it. Next came a hot variety with pepper, and finally, diet versions were added.
Today, there are six varieties of Wippy Peanut Butter and the product has grown into a trusted, recognisable brand that’s a huge favourite with the Surinamese people. The preservative free nut butter consists of 95% peanuts and is sold in over 1,500 shops and supermarkets across the country.
Increased competition spurs exports
The company was soon faced with another challenge though, as more businesses across Suriname started producing peanut butter, and Wippy’s market share fell from 65% to 35%.
A plan was formulated to work on reclaiming five to 10% of the market through increased marketing events such as supermarket tastings and health and wellness campaigns in schools.
Willemsbrg also decided to turn their attention beyond Suriname’s shores to capture more sales.
Susan says: “We have an excellent distributor. They are the sole distributors for Coca Cola in Suriname, and they are doing a great job at pushing the Wippy brand”.
Distributor Fernandes has taken Wippy into Guyana and is currently working on expanding its presence in that country.
With assistance from the Women Empowered through Export (WE-Xport) programme, Willemsberg is now also looking to Europe. WE-Xport provides technical assistance, grant funding and training geared toward preparing women-owned Caribbean businesses for export.
Susan adds: “We had a lot of help from our WE-Xport coach, and this enabled us to export to The Netherlands. The coach guided us through the process and researched the documents and other requirements needed to export to and promote our product in Holland.”
The company was not able to sell in The Netherlands under the name ‘Wippy’ because of its similarity to internationally-known peanut butter brand ‘Skippy’. So, the Willemsberg team registered the name ‘Fosten’ – a reference to the traditional way of making peanut butter in Suriname.
The necessary paperwork was filed, and once registration was complete Willemsberg exported their first palettes of over 6,000 jars of Fosten peanut butter to Holland, where they are focused on appealing to the Surinamese diaspora of approximately 400,000 people.
Employees key to Willemsberg’s success!
Susan believes the ability to read and respond to market trends has played a crucial role in keeping Willemsberg in business for almost 60 years, but she insists the true credit must be given to her 34 employees.
She offered up this piece of advice for other small business owners.
“Do not be afraid to trust and count on your management team and employees. Give them the opportunity to help, and to express their ideas. Invest in your employees, guide, coach and always be honest with them, and you will see that this will reflect positively in your company’s performance.”