Nokukhanya Mncwabe was a self-described “roll-up your sleeves” hustler, a multitasking consultant working across the Africa. Mncwabe decided to channel her energy and passion for the continent into reviving an ancient “drink of the gods” for a new generation. Mncwabe is the co-founder and CEP of Matawi Mead Collection, a pan-African beverage brand that blends centuries of tradition with contemporary and sustainable production. Derived from the Swahili word for branches, Matawi finds resilience in interconnectedness. Mncwabe shares how the global pandemic and a personal health scare changed her perspective on business and life.
How have you found resilience in your personal space in response to Covid-19 and the national lockdown we’re currently experiencing in South Africa?
I live in a multi-generational home, which is incredibly enabling for a working mother. I am able to work and travel, assured that my children are in safe and loving hands. However, this time of Covid has been interesting because on the one hand we’re more cautious with our movements because we have a 79-year-old old, my mother, in the home.
At the same time, the lockdown has allowed me to fully participate in and appreciate the domestic cycles of home-keeping—washing, cooking, homeschooling, enjoying family meals around the table or fire, passing time together with board games, family movies, neighbourhood walks, eavesdropping on the older juniors and catching up with youth lingo, attending virtual church—all this while trying to sustain momentum on my business, Matawi, from my home office!
When did you know you were ready to make the move from consultant to co-founder and CEO of your start-up, Matawi?
When I started on a downward medical spiral, my ability to deliver took a severe knock. Before, I’d prided myself on being a scrappy employee and consultant. I was the “roll up my sleeves” person who was not constrained by titles or remuneration. I thrived in getting things, whatever the odds! So when I started to experience difficulty getting out of bed, I initially attributed this to burnout. Several months and exhaustive consultations with my GP, chiropractor and gynae later, having undergone ultrasounds, x-rays and MRI’s; I recognised that this is not something that can be resolved by spa treatments or a vacation before I simply resume where I left off.
My illness led to many months of bedrest, but the time has been invaluable though: it gave me the opportunity to take stock of what is most important to me. To reflect on what I’ve learned over the course of my professional trajectory. Ultimately, I landed on several important take-aways: the first was accepting responsibility for my status quo—recognising that my ill-health was attributable to being a people-pleaser and grappling to understand the underlying reasons for this and what I needed to do to move forward.
I also realised that it’s neither productive nor sustainable to engage in an enterprise dependent solely on my input. If I am serious about contributing to the upliftment and development of African communities, about undoing the structural legacies of apartheid, including reversing our inequality, which is the highest in the world, if I want to build a legacy that is enduring and impactful while simultaneously enjoying a quality of life that enables me to continue being fully present at home and within my broader family, then it it’s time to stop implementing donor-dependent social interventions and start building a profitable business to directly sustain worthy initiatives. The impending economic implications of Covid and their impact on grant-reliant entities has really validated this realisation.
As the CEO and co-founder of Matawi, how has Covid-19 impacted your business and what creative strategies have you employed during this time?
Matawi was gearing up for the official launch of it’s online shop when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the second temporary prohibition on alcohol sales. The inability to trade has been a blessing in disguise for us: we’ve used this time to intensively review and revise our initial strategy, dreaming bigger and unleashing the constraints on our ambition!
The work behind the scenes continues at a rapid pace: we’re taking steps to ensure we’re compliant to pursue multiple sales channels and even looking into export opportunities far earlier than initially envisaged. Naturally this requires a complete overhaul of our initial marketing strategy so we’ve also gone back to the drawing as far as this is concerned.
Ultimately, inasmuch as Matawi is a passion product that ticks all of the boxes—preservation and elevation of age-old African indigenous brewing that offers environmental benefits, a socially impactful business and the entrenchment of a premium African alcohol brand—in the long-run, we will have to diversify because liquor trade is complex and subject to punitive taxes and tariffs.
I’ve always struggled with the negative narrative on Africa, because it centres our challenges whilst completely erasing the beauty of our natural environs, peoples, and ways of life…
In the United States, we’ve seen a greater focus on supporting black business as part of the broader narrative around Black Lives Matter. As a black owned business, do you think there’s enough support for black businesses in South Africa?
I was reading that stated that searches for black businesses in the US in the aftermath of sustained anti-racism and responsible policing protests has been as high as 7000% in some states! I’ve observed several social media groups in South Africa seeking to galvanise similar action, however, my little time in business has opened my eyes to the numerous challenges confronting local black business. The vast majority use digital platforms as their exclusive sales channel, either on account of prohibitive retail rentals, unfamiliarity or difficulty navigating black supplier development programmes, or being located far from urban centres.
Direct business to customer sales are reliant on courier dispatch, which tags on a cost that is invariably passed on to the consumer; but production is also typically small-scale, which means that price competitiveness is nowhere in the region of large scale operations, the majority of which are not black-owned. So people who support black businesses really do so as a matter of principle, fully cognisant that they could, quite effortlessly, find an equivalent and more competitively priced product elsewhere. They know and are motivated by the reality that they can simultaneously acquire a quality product and contribute to the growth of black-owned businesses that will in time become as established and valuable as today’s dominant companies.
As a brand, Matawi is rooted in Africa; sustainability and a community consciousness, why was the positioning of your business in this way so important to you?
For the most part, the majority of South Africans do not have a great deal of exposure to the continent beyond southern Africa. I’ve been very fortunate to have travel to over ten countries in Africa facilitated through my work. These experiences were invaluable and eye-opening on so many levels: not only did these trips help me truly appreciate how South Africa is perceived (Brand SA has a LOT of work to do!), but it also gave me insight into the complexity of our respective colonial legacies.
I’ve always struggled with the negative narrative on Africa, because it centres our challenges whilst completely erasing the beauty of our natural environs, peoples, and ways of life, the warmth of our hospitality, the charm of our unique customs and the unrestrained love that is virtually inherent in every African! Since Matawi uses only local African produce, it was a no-brainer to celebrate this and to refine and elevate a local brew so that it becomes a proudly celebratory libation, enjoyed by a generation that moves seamlessly between countries and continents, appreciating the differences they encapsulate without denigrating what is quintessentially ours here at home.
Our community ethos is an outworking of this: in Africa the family is conceived as substantially bigger than the nuclear unit. This is our outlook at Matawi: our success cannot be measured solely through financial metrics, we want to see beekeepers’ operations grow because our demand for honey increases; to capacitate the women who’ve passed down iqhilika recipes over the generations to produce for us under license, and support community initiatives for a knock-on positive impact. Hoarding up more money exclusively for ourselves is not only absurd, but really nothing to celebrate if it doesn’t benefit our broader communities.