After months of little to no income as a result of government’s Covid-19 regulations, South Africa’s first black woman to have owned a microbrewery has called it quits. Brewsters Craft founder Apiwe Nxusani-Mawela now tries to earn a living through presenting training programmes.
In an exclusive interview with Food For Mzansi, the master brewer says she has tried her best to push forward as an agripreneur. Unfortunately, the impact of alcohol sales bans enforced by government has simply been too severe.
“February and March were the months I really pushed,” says Nxusani-Mawela. “I kept telling myself this can’t fail. What about what we have started here? The clients and the learners…”
Brewsters Craft, founded in 2015, was a dream come true for Nxusani-Mawela who was born and raised in Butterworth, Eastern Cape. Her Johannesburg-based brewery was a shining star, doing contract work whilst also offering accredited training and quality testing services for the greater agricultural sector.
13 years’ high-level experience
Also, Nxusani-Mawela is no stranger to trials and tribulations. Her illustrious career was a far cry from the days when she made umqombothi for family members.
It took blood, sweat and tears to work her way through the ranks at South African Breweries (SAB).
There, she held many different positions, including brand brewer, brewing area manager and, later, craft brewer.
In 2014, Nxusani-Mawela resigned to partner with Brewhogs Microbrewery where she was both a co-owner and brewmaster.
Many agriculturists looked up to her and witnessed her greatest moments. She obtained a master brewer qualification from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling and was the first black African to get SAQA accredited diploma in clear fermented beverages. Besides an honours degree in microbiology, she also holds a diploma in clear fermented beverages.
Her roles as chairperson of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (Africa), the Beer Association of South Africa, and a seat at the director’s table of the Craft Brewers’ Association paved the way for many aspiring brewsters. But in the end, 13 years of high-level brewing and business experience was not enough to save her business.
Missed payments and legal battles
“My deepest fears became a reality in January this year when we had legal actions started against us for failure to meet loan repayments and honouring arrangements made after the first two [alcohol sales] bans,” says Nxusani-Mawela.
In 2017, she was financed by the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) and used the money to develop and expand her brewing enterprise in late 2019. Contractually, her loan repayments had to start in May 2020 – just as South Africa was in its first hard lockdown because of Covid-19.
“I asked the IDC to restructure the loan agreement because we were not able to pay, but they declined my application,” she explains.
It was then that legal action was taken against her. Not long after that, Nxusani-Mawela’s landlord also started legal action for missed payments. This, after an agreement was reached with her landlord in which she only had to pay for utilities for a six-month period. Afterwards, repay the arrears plus full rent.
“The landlord sent a letter of demand and even sent a sheriff of the court. It was too much, so many stresses at the same time,” she says.
“I was trying hard to push sales and my beer brand, but it just was not working. When sales opened up again in February [this year], I tried to renegotiate with the IDC about where we were at, but they were ready to start the asset recovery process.”
After months of going back and forth and meetings after meetings, Nxusani-Mawela called it quits. She notified her staff in April and Brewsters Craft stopped production a month later.
‘I’m going to lose myself’
The last few months have taken an emotional toll on Nxusani-Mawela.
“It’s still emotional draining. From the first ban, we’ve been calling on government to save livelihoods and it seems like it fell on deaf ears.
“I’m actually glad that I took this decision. I’ve tried all I think I could have. I’ve said all I think I could have. If I continue with this battle, I’m going to lose myself.”
“Government made noise about how they were helping entrepreneurs but on the ground none of that was happening.
“I asked myself, at one point, what does being celebrated as the first black person to do something even mean when you are now faced with a situation where you have to close shop?”
Having to tell her employees that they were out of work was one of the most difficult things Nxusani-Mawela ever had to do. One of her former employees, Yamkela Mbakaza, tells Food For Mzansi says the Covid-19 regulations have also stolen their dreams.
“It’s a very stressful time in my life,” says Mbakaza, who was the head brewer at Brewsters Craft. “I can’t find a job because most of the breweries have shut down. The ones that are still open are in survival mode. They are not looking to recruit new people. There’s no certainty at the moment about where we are going from here and how long this is going to take.”
Despite the challenges of this season of her life, Nxusani-Mawela is adamant that Mzansi has not seen the last of her. She believes a bright future awaits after the Covid-19 pandemic.
“I’m no longer emotional and angry. I got to point where I kind of accepted that everything that happened was not my doing. It was the system. My dreams and visions are still there, and I won’t stop.”
Nxusani-Mawela says she, however, plans to continue and contract brew her beer brand TolokaziBeer.