Drought. Job creation. Honey. Collaboration. This unlikely blend of ingredients stirred, shook, intermingled, morphed into Cape Town-based social entrepreneur Nokukhanya “Khanya” Mncwabe’s passion project. This being the alcohol brand she has launched, which right now is made up of a honey liqueur (fortified mead) and a honey gin (distilled mead). What she is calling “the two anchors.”
Mncwabe has a big-picture sky’s-the-limit vision of what might grow and flow from these anchors. Her concept is rooted in her resolve to do something relevant within the context of climate change while simultaneously creating opportunities for producers, small farmers and others while working collaboratively in partnerships.
These words from the Matawi website, this being her brand, give the gist of the story: “Matawi’s founders seek to establish a company with an enduring legacy, which lifts people and communities out of poverty, generates sufficient profit to plow back into development initiatives, entrenches an aspirational African brand that becomes globally beloved and synonymous with celebration — of life, leisure, dowry negotiations, travel, births, honeymoons, graduations, weddings, coming-of-age-ceremonies, anniversaries, and all of life’s precious adventures; all without compromising the fresh water required to sustain food crops and humanity.”
Fresh water. Or more accurately, lack of water, was the linchpin behind the launch.
Turning Off the Taps
Cape Town, South Africa’s Mother City and most-visited city, faced a crippling drought between 2016 and 2018, at which point, on the verge of running out of water, residents were just 90 days away from seeing the taps turned off.
During this period, Mncwabe says, with people lining up in the suburbs to fill containers at water tanker delivery spots, she and concerned friends regularly discussed the issue. A focus of their musings was possible ways to alleviate pressure on water while, in a business context, meeting a customer need.
“Unlike other forms of alcohol like wine, beer and vodka where crops, be it fruit or grains, have to be watered for months, mead, being a honey-based alcoholic beverage, only needs water during production.” This translates to less than 10% of the water required to produce alcohol by comparison with those other base ingredients.”
While contributing to water conservation was key, she also saw the business she envisioned opening up “employment and income-generating opportunities to help alleviate entrenched poverty and inequality.”
Before Mncwabe launched this triple-bottom-line venture — people, planet, profit, as in social and environmental concerns being as relevant as profit — she was involved in advocacy and policy development at regional and continental levels in Africa.
When I Google her before meeting via video call from Durban, where I am, Matawi is mentioned. But there is a whole lot more about her work involving human rights.
Human Rights to Transitional Justice
“Let me tell you a bit about how I segued,” Mncwabe says when I ask her to explain the switch.
“I studied politics, philosophy and law at UCT. But I was very clear I wasn’t going to go into legal practice. I wanted to go into human rights.”
This was, perhaps, inevitable. Her late dad, she tells me, was an Anglican priest and “part of that cohort of theologians who was banned.” When I Google, I read that Reverend Sabelo Stanley Ntwasa was “outspoken politically, often spending time in prison for his criticism of the apartheid regime.”
Her mom, now 82 and living in the family home, worked for the SA Council of Churches, where advocacy for social and economic justice is a focus. “So it was an activist-packed childhood,” the affable, candid, down-to-earth crusader-for-change muses. “I think, looking back, my parents definitely influenced my choice of career.”
After graduating, Mncwabe went into NGO work almost immediately with the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. “It was their transitional justice program, so a lot of the work they were doing was the after-effects of apartheid. Work on reparations and reparation policy.
On the strength of this work, our organisation was asked to provide technical support to the African Union, obviously is a Pan-African body, which was developing a transitional justice policy framework.”
The work involved consulting communities across the African continent and she continues, “And as we were giving the technical support, it meant we were participating in a lot of local organizations.”
What she saw left her feeling more and more despondent. “Conducting field missions, we would run into localised communities and see their living conditions while trying to gauge what they needed.”
After about ten years of working with NGOs, it became clear to Mncwabe, from the on-the-ground needs she saw, that she wanted to create jobs. “I started thinking about how to set up a social impact venture that would be able to create income and job opportunities, in particular for rural women and youth.”
Liquor Making Not Her Objective
It wasn’t that she especially wanted to go into liquor-making when she started researching mead, discovering along the way that “at every archeological excavation right across the world, they have found traces of mead. In China, in India and all over Africa.”
This writer thought she was familiar with mead, having seen it referenced in Shakespeare and having been served it at a medieval banquet way back while on a media trip to London where mead was the drink poured to go with the vast platters of meat on bones, and where you were given a knife for cutting, but since forks hadn’t been invented at the time. Eating with your hands was de rigueur. But while I knew honey was involved, I wasn’t aware it was mankind’s oldest alcoholic beverage, pre-dating beer and wine by several thousand years.
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Mead, says Wikipedia, is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey mixed with water and sometimes added ingredients such as fruits, spices, grains and hops. I read it is usually low in alcohol.
This makes me wonder about that banquet’s mead, remembering a certain magazine editor on that media trip who disappeared to the bathroom. Didn’t reappear for an inordinately long time. Finally asking a waiter to go look for him, only to learn our colleague had drifted off to la-la-land in the loo.
Matawi presents itself as a social impact business committed to the ancillary benefits of reviving indigenous mead-making heritage. To this end, Mncwabe discovered during her research that she had a close-to-home mead authority.
Her Xhosa mother (Xhosa being the second largest cultural group in South Africa, after the Zulu-speaking nation), it transpired, had at some point imbued the Xhosa way of mead-making, passed down through oral tradition as many things have been in Africa.
“My mum wasn’t taught by her parents. Her father was a Methodist priest, and my grandmother was a domestic science teacher, so they wouldn’t have approved. It seems she was taught by an aunt or someone in her filial circles. “She lives with me, and every product we test passes her lips.”
Mead in South Africa, as made for hundreds of years by the Khoisan, the country’s oldest and original inhabitants, and known variously as iQhilika, !karri and karri, has made it into the Slow Food International annals.
Developing a Honey Map for Matawi
Mead is the equivalent of an aperitif for Matawi. “So this first product we’ve brought to market is a honey-based one and we looked into entering a formal partnership with a non-profit in Zambia called Nature’s Nectar. Their intervention is to provide more sustainable honey. The communities there typically use tree bark to build hives, which didn’t have a lot of longevity or great yield and were leading to the destruction of the forests.”
This is the kind of collaboration she seeks. She partnered with a researcher for the technical input needed for the anchor range. “I am big on human agency.” And collective decisions. And people working towards their own development.
“So now we’re wanting to develop a honey map because, obviously, the flora informs the palate of the honey. And we’re also doing a study to identify climate-resistant and drought-resistant grains, botanicals and teas. And we are testing a grass called fonio that is completely drought resistant. It produces an ancient grain, technically a seed, we’d like to use to make a grain spirit. We want to build as many products as we can and enter as many markets as we can.”
Africa’s Interesting Contradiction
Mncwabe talks about the interesting contradiction that is Africa. On the one hand, “the constraints that are really frustrated.” On the other hand, Africa’s potential “that is so encouraging.”
Matawi is her passion project. “I really want to be a part of the generation that is showcasing Africa’s best, whether that’s the people, the produce, the food, the culinary experience. This is the continent I most enjoy traveling. The continent I find the most interesting. The people, their vibrancy, their loudness, their love of music and food. I call this my passion project because I’m so motivated. I see it as an essential part of the bigger diaspora and conversation.”
She is currently involved in a US-SA incubator project, a partnership between Venture Noire and Remote Learn, an international accelerator program specifically built for Black and minority business founders and dedicated to improving Black quality of life through economic development.
“They brought entrepreneurs to South Africa last year to be in partnership with us. What I experienced were people curious to know more about Africa and who weren’t judgmental. The second component of the incubator will involve my traveling to the U.S. later this year to basically showcase our product to investors.
“And we will not just meet with investors but with distributors as well. We’re currently wrapping our heads around the federal and state regulatory requirements to get the products into the U.S.” She sees it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dream bigger and identify the practical steps to take.
Matawi to date, she tells me, has been entirely self-funded. “I have continued to work as a consultant to meet needs and obligations.” Her husband, Dr. Dennis Ndolo, who is Kenyan with a Ph.D. in agriculture (entomology), has been an integral contributor to the venture by helping Mncwabe map out the produce to use and understanding some of the regulatory restraints.
Their children have also been an exceptional component during the production stage, helping her to put stickers on the boxes, ship consignments and assist in the early design.
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Her conversations with them have centered on her desire to leave a family legacy. “I’ve described to them the African proverb reminding us that the planting of a tree means the planter doesn’t get to sit in the shade of this tree. My hope is that further down the line, they will play some big-picture role.”
Given they haven’t been waiting but are already involved, and judging by her commitment, her personal journey to date and her passion, my bet is that this pragmatic, passionate activist has what it takes to create jobs, change lives, have us all knowing a lot more about mead and the impact of climate change on what we eat and drink.
And that her legacy will have more people than she can imagine embraced under the shade of the tree that has taken root and will continue spreading its branches. Visit the Matawi website for the progression of this brand and follow Matawi Mead on Facebook and Matawi Mead on Instagram for updates, distribution updates and more.