For over 10 years, Nokukhanya Mncwabe worked as a human rights researcher and advocate for a variety of nonprofit organisations. It was her work with rural communities that sparked the idea for Matawi, a Swahili word for “branches”, and the name of her alcohol brand.
“I started thinking about how to set up a social impact venture that would be able to create income and job opportunities for rural women and youth in particular. But it was in 2018 when I really formalised the business because it was the height of the worst drought that the Western Cape had experienced in over a century,” Mncwabe explains.
The drought saw the City of Cape Town on the verge of running out of water, with citizens minimising their water consumption as much as they could.
“I started thinking more intentionally about how to set up a business that would contribute to water conservation, that would enable me to create those job opportunities, and Matawi was the no-brainer.”
Mncwabe says that Matawi’s primary product is mead, which uses between 5 to 10% of the water that is usually used in other alcoholic operations. The brand is a 100% black-owned, woman-owned enterprise, and operates out of Cape Town.
“We wanted to create a luxurious premium brand, both to celebrate what is from Africa but also to create demand for honey. [A demand] that was going to provide us the vehicle to partner with rural women and youth as our preferred suppliers in the provision of honey, and also all the other natural ingredients that we use. We don’t use any artificial substances in our production.”
Matawi is an all-natural brand, says Mncwabe, made up only of natural elements like teas, spices and botanicals. As a venture dedicated to social upliftment, all the ingredients for the alcohol is sourced from smallholders.
“It was these aspects that we thought, ‘well, if we identify cooperatives to supply us, then at least we’d be able to achieve that goal of creating income, generating employment opportunities’.”
Coinciding with Covid-19
At the time the Covid-19 pandemic started, Matawi was still a fledgling business. They were still trying to establish themselves, says Mncwabe, so the bans on alcohol sales and alcohol production became a really trying time for them.
“That was really a test of the fortitude of the business. We were a microbrewery, so we produced really, really small volumes. But we weren’t able to lay down stock, even though we couldn’t trade.
“We would have wanted to be able to continue producing and to lay down stock so that when the bans were lifted, we were in a position to bring all of this product to market.”
While the setback was hard to deal with, Mncwabe says the ban provided them with the extra time they needed to focus on their business strategy.
“Initially we had been poised to launch as a B2B business. We thought that we would partner with restaurants, with hotels to work through their sommeliers and to work through their hosts, really just to educate the public about what mead is. So it was a challenging time but it was also a really beneficial time [because] it helped us to pivot to digital and to pivot our business to customers directly.”
To reach more clients, Matawi listed their products on BrownSense, a retail platform dedicated to supporting black businesses.
Mncwabe explains that she does not have a background in business, so she is learning a lot through managing Matawi. She says that trying to wrap her head around the regulations, managing people and just learning more about operating a business has been challenging, but also rewarding.
“It’s really been rewarding to actually do it and not just to think and strategise about it and to learn every single day. I obviously have great ambitions and as small as we are, I would love for us to grow to become a globally recognised brand.
“I would love for us to be on the shelves of South African retailers, so that’s what we’re working towards step by step. It’s been gratifying just to grow and see the vision come to life, and to see people tasting mead and giving us their feedback on what they think.”
Matawi is a celebration, not just of South African tradition, but of African tradition, says Mncwabe. Her vision for the brand is one that does not just contribute to the country’s growth, but also one that is proudly African.
“I would love to get to a point where I see Matawi as a part of celebrating life and celebrating our heritage, celebrating our customs. [I] hope that Matawi will become a drink that celebrates the special occasions, as well as the everyday.”
Mncwabe has the following tips for agripreneurs hoping to follow in her footsteps:
Don’t be afraid to start small
I often think back to my grandmothers, both on the maternal and paternal side. One kept chickens. She started very small and built up her business over time and it was very much a case of trial and error. There was a lot of learning related to how to keep conditions conducive to the growth of her chickens, how to make sure that they didn’t become susceptible to illness, and so on. I really admire that. I can see that I’m stepping onto the shoulders of the women in my family who had the courage just to start.
My paternal grandmother had a donkey cart and sold vegetables which she grew. That was also a case of really just learning from trial and error to see what people wanted, as opposed to what she thought they wanted, and to revise her offering so that it landed in the market, and that she was offering what people wanted to buy.
Read as much as you can
Read as much as you can and follow business people who are already successful. That has been really insightful for me. It’s helped me to avoid making mistakes that other people have already made, where they point out a pitfall that they made early on in their business.
It also just gives one exposure. I’ve learned sound business fundamentals from reading and from listening to other business people and from talking to other people. And I’ve followed a lot of young entrepreneurs’ journeys within the South African landscape, whether it was their posts on LinkedIn, their interviews or reading platforms such as this one.
There’s such rich knowledge and information and learnings available to us who are fortunate to be born in modern times where everything is available at a click of a button. I feel like doing business is like getting your MBA. You’re not just doing the theory of it, but you’re learning in doing, which is the best way to learn.
Get solid financial advice
Make sure that you really have solid financial knowledge and insights. We took a decision at Matawi to make sure that we were compliant from the start. It was a little bit more expensive to set up our financial systems, [but] we have a bookkeeper and we outsource to a consulting firm. That means that we are able to get our audited financials at the end of every year, even before we are tendering or before people are asking for it.
And it’s been invaluable for us because it really shows us where our money is going. It has also allowed us to receive advice from the people who are financial experts in terms of where we can cut costs and where we can save.
Connect with agricultural organisations
Tap into agricultural associations close to where you are because this will also open up opportunities. It will open up access to information about opportunities within your context, and that can be anything from how to approach your local retailer if you want to supply them, [to] information in terms of the labeling regulations.
It also means that you can have those direct conversations. You’re not always waiting to get to that point. You can start thinking about what to do for the business to actually be eligible to benefit from some of these opportunities.
Do not work in isolation
I think we are so often tempted to believe that we are in competition with other business people, but you would really be surprised at the goodwill that exists. In my case, I have reached out to other spirit producers on LinkedIn, I’ve reached out to other women in business and it’s been phenomenal. The support that Matawi has received from people who are much further down the journey and who are more successful than we currently are.
I have been really amazed at how willing people are to impart advice, at how willing they are to make time just to support another business to come up behind them.
For many of us, we don’t see other businesses as competition. We really get excited to see that entrepreneurs in South Africa are making a go of it. They’re giving it their all.
[Try] not to become weary, and think of your business journey as a marathon and not a sprint. And so to really persevere, to remind yourself of why you [started] this business. Was it because you wanted the independence of managing your own time? Was it because, 20 years down the line, you want to have a business that creates employment opportunities for young people in a country which has such a high unemployment rate?
Is it because you want to establish a brand that you can be proud of? Is it because you want your family to establish a generational legacy of owning land? [Keep your goal] at the forefront of your mind because when the struggles come, it is so easy for those struggles to become debilitating and cause you to want to give up.
Just take each day as it comes, persevere, and keep your ‘why’ at the forefront of your mind.
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