From the mean streets to main street, Dragons’ Den star Levi Roots is about to face his biggest challenge yet. Alex Beckett checks out his chances of success

I only had one complaint after interviewing Levi Roots: where was the guitar?

The man who once sang happy birthday to Nelson Mandela, counted Bob Marley as a good friend and - of course - jammed his way towards a £50,000 windfall on BBC Two’s Dragons’ Den, is intrinsically linked with music. Surely a few chords wouldn’t hurt?

But this was Roots in business mode. Sporting a sharp suit and fine leather shoes, the dreadlocked multimillionaire has driven from the mean streets of Brixton to the swish West Kensington office of his boss and mentor Peter Jones to announce his latest enterprise.

Having rolled out the Reggae Reggae brand across pasties, frozen chicken, ready meals and nuts, Roots now faces a challenge as daunting as Dragons’ Den. He’s entering the ultra-competitive £2bn soft drinks market with a nine-strong range of exotic fruit juices and carbonates inspired by the flavours of his beloved Caribbean.

The drinks, which are being manufactured by Vimto owner Nichols and will hit shelves this month, consist of a three-flavour ambient line, including Reggae Reggae Tomato Juice with Scotch Bonnet Chilli Peppers, and a carbonated range boasting a Fiery Root Ginger Beer.

“The flavours have to be very Caribbean as it is part of the USP,” he explains. “This ginger beer will carry the fire the Reggae Reggae brand is known for. Mine is more authentic than other Caribbean brands, which don’t have a familiar face.”

Vimto is just one of the manufacturing partners that he “always dreamt of working with” and joins a small but impressive club that includes Kerry Foods (ready meals) and Birds Eye (Reggae Reggae Chicken Chargrills), while Subway and the West Cornwall Pasty Company use his sauce in their products.

It’s a club that could grow rapidly with numerous other producers queuing up to work with Roots. During the course of our interview the co-founder of a well-known crisp brand bundles into the room enquiring about launching a Reggae Reggae-flavoured crisp line.

While he refuses to rule out such a partnership, there are some categories Roots won’t venture into, however. “We have turned down quite a lot of things to do with pork products maybe £5m or £6m worth,” he explains. “The integrity of the brand is the most important thing about Reggae Reggae and if Levi Roots wouldn’t eat it or drink it, it can’t be part of the brand.”

More often than not, referring to oneself in the third person is an irritating trait, but Roots gets away with it because he’s so charming. In turn, he’s similarly entranced by mentor Jones. The move into soft drinks marks the completion of the five-year plan that he pitched to Jones and his fellow Dragons in March 2007, and since that fateful day, the Reggae Reggae Sauce brand has hit a market value of £30m.

“For my inspiration, Peter is saddled in between Nelson Mandela and Bob Marley,” eulogises Roots. “Those two great black men have done fantastic things for my head and Peter has done great things for my bank account. I don’t think I can teach people how to set up a business, but I can inspire people.”

And inspiring people is what Roots does all the time. He spends most of his week visiting schools, especially in deprived areas, encouraging children to make the most of their lives.

“There’s an army of young people who are interested in business and enterprise but the government doesn’t support them,” he says, with a hint of anger. “You don’t hear about them. I said to Boris Johnson and Gordon Brown: let’s talk about the kids who are doing well, let’s use them as a yardstick and influence for the others who are not doing so well. What we’ve always done is blame kids who are doing bad and ignore those doing well. Young people look up to other young people, not old fogeys.”

Roots is keen to stay close to his ahem roots and those that supported him on his journey to success. The adoration that the people of Brixton have for him comes to a head each Sunday.

“On Facebook a few years ago I said Sunday is the time I have spare to sit in my restaurant but it’s now like another Dragons’ Den and I’m the Dragon! Recession hasn’t had much of an effect on young start-ups. I started out in recession just as people were looking for something new and I tell young people that a product has to have an edge.”

It’s an ethos that all of Roots’ products have adhered to, although he admits that launching an authentic Caribbean food range hasn’t always been plain sailing. Roots may have paved the way for similar brands but the cuisine faces a number of challenges, with recent headlines focusing on the high salt content of traditional Caribbean dishes. But this is a challenge he relishes.

“Obviously there’s a big problem of diabetes in the Caribbean community, but salt and sugar levels are reducing and I am in a position as market leader to go and make those changes.” Although as yet he hasn’t made any inroads in this regard.

It’s a little wonder when you consider his schedule. Alongside the school visits, his restaurant sermons, a forthcoming book launch and a new record, Roots is about to star as himself in a major new feature film.

“After this interview I’m meeting some filmmakers who want me in their new movie Anuvahood the follow up to Adulthood and Kidulthood. It’s another string to my bow. And I’ll try and get my product placement!”

Levi Roots snapshot

Real name: Keith Valentine Graham
Age: 53
On his real name: “Bob Marley’s music and Rastafarianism changed me from being Keith Graham, which is the name my parents gave me and which I struggled with. It got me a lot of trouble when I was younger. I couldn’t focus. Who could with a name like Keith Graham?”
Favourite brand: “Marmite. I like the way it is marketed. Whether you love it or not you are still a Marmite fan. That’s what we are about, trying to keep reliving that magic moment when I was on Dragons’ Den.”
On Dragons’ Den: “I think the eyes are on us at the moment, especially the black and ethnic community who see us as theirs. They feel part of the story of seeing Levi sweat. Willing him to get through, then he’s got through and then they invest in him by buying his first sauce and long may it continue!”