Tapiwa Guzha has a PhD in molecular biology with a focus on plant genetics, but what he’s best known for is ice cream. Tucked between a bookshop and a health food shop in Cape Town, South Africa, is Tapi Tapi, Guzha’s ice cream parlor, cafe, and deli. This is no ordinary ice cream, however: Tapi Tapi ice cream is made with and inspired by African flavors and ingredients.
Since opening in 2020, Tapi Tapi has served up ice cream made with ingredients such as rooibos, amasi, plantain, impepho, buchu, tamarind, and salt-cured kapenta. In 2022, Guzha expanded the parlor to include a deli and bar, where he continues to reimagine dishes and remix ingredients from across the continent. The new menu boasts items such as jollof-inspired tomato soup, kei-apple amasi, and Guzha’s own twist on Ethiopian coffee.
We visited Tapiwa Guzha at his cafe to chat about his career journey, why he started Tapi Tapi, and his advice for young students of color aspiring to go into STEM.
I grew up in Harare. I studied in parts of rural and urban Zimbabwe, and did a BSc at the University of Cape Town. From the beginning of my postgrad studies until the end of my PhD, I studied molecular biology with a focus on plant genetics.
The choice to study molecular biology wasn’t particularly profound. I’d just finished high school, and you know, at that age, you don’t necessarily have a clue what it all means. We’re asking a lot from teenagers to decide, what are you gonna do with the rest of your life? So I just did what seemed interesting.
But when you graduate, you realize actually, this was a terrible choice, because trying to get a job with an undergrad BSc is very difficult. Plus, the industry doesn’t pay well compared to the careers most kids from Black families go into.
We saw from postgrad that the pool of Blackness drops in STEM. People realize that there’s no money and they’ve got real problems to address back home, people to support, that kind of thing. So people make the decision to shift focus and find something else to do.
So, after failing to find a job, I did a master’s program, which became a PhD, and then I was fortunate enough to get a postdoc position at the University of Stellenbosch.
I spent four years at Stellenbosch University but became increasingly disillusioned. My work was enjoyable, but I quickly realized that I was not an academic. I enjoy asking questions, but I dislike the rest of the process. Furthermore, some of the things in that space became increasingly problematic for me. The kind of research that I was doing didn’t focus on the African continent enough, and I felt like I wasn’t doing my part to benefit continental culture. I was focusing on making non-indigenous plants grow better in Africa. It just didn’t sit well with me at the time. So, I started Tapi-Tapi.
I was a very curious child. I was always intrigued by how things work, and I asked a lot of questions. So, I came to be a scientist because of that disposition. I also grew up in a creative home space, and trying to understand the world is part of that creative expression.
Growing up, my mum was really focused on offering us many different tools for us to figure out our own things. She’d get us math sets, books about chemistry, electronic keyboards, and language studies equipment, like books and CDs to learn French. And so my mum always insisted on providing us with options, and then having us pick the option we wanted out of that situation.
In July 2018, I started Tapi Tapi initially as an online business. At first, I was just making what you might call classic ice cream. It wasn’t the Tapi Tapi that people know now – it wasn’t focused on the African continent at all.
Then, in late 2018, I discovered some of my favorite urban snacks from home in a restaurant. I wondered if I could put that in ice cream? So I did, and it was the first time I had nostalgic and familiar ice cream. It was more than just a tasty treat to me. It brought back memories and was both nostalgic and emotional.
I started doing testing events, and people were having really amazing conversations and connecting with the food. People from all over Africa were saying, oh, we use this thing for blah, blah, blah, how do you guys use it? Oh, you actually eat that as well? Weird, you cook it savory, we made it sweet, you know? That’s when I realized, this is necessary work. I started asking myself, how come no one’s ever done this? And how come I’ve never done this?
“We all have these little spots of bias, and we don't always see things until someone helps us see. I was paying attention in the moment, and I caught a glimpse of something that I thought was quirky and interesting. And then because I gave it a chance, I realised, this is life-altering”.
This has changed over time. It used to be a very intense effort to educate people, but it’s shifted to a lot less “here’s some education shoved down your throat,” to a much more subtle and gentle approach. If people want to ask questions, they ask questions. We present a space and opportunity. More importantly, I only have cursory knowledge, whereas others have lived this thing. Most of the time, my experience is that I’m learning from people who come in here, not the other way around.
Part of the point of this space is to tell people, don’t fixate on the ice cream. Fixate on the approach.
What are we doing here? We’re celebrating the African continent. How are we doing it? Well, currently through a myriad of different options, including ice cream.
All of them! In the beginning, the biggest challenge is getting people to see the value of what you’re doing. Conceptually, people are like, oh, it’s cool. But to get them to believe in the work that you’re doing is its own challenge. There are no magic bullets: you just have to do it, and hope people eventually come around and understand exactly what you’re trying to achieve.
It’s an important decision to make, and I think people need clarity around why they’re making the decision. Are you getting into STEM because there’s family pressure, or are you getting into it because you genuinely think that’s something that you want to do?
If it’s something that you genuinely want to do, I think it’s important to have some hands-on experience before you fully commit. My biggest advice would be to find a way of shadowing someone in that space. Maybe do a temporary job or an internship, even if it’s just in science generally. Maybe you want to become a physicist, but you can’t access the physicists. Then try and spend some time with a mathematician. Something close-ish, and see if the overall process feels comfortable. Also, they’ll have a lot more perspective than you do about some of the questions you have. So start asking questions.