The business of craft

Destiny Man - - ENTREPRENEURS -

Once upon a time, a spirit-lover’s choice was lim­ited to a few well-known brands. That changed when the craft beer rev­o­lu­tion took place, with small-batch prod­ucts from lo­cal mak­ers find­ing their way into the gin, vodka and rum sec­tors. This grow­ing trend has pro­vided ex­cit­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for en­trepreneurs, but how does a dis­tiller with a dream make it come true?

DISTINKT VODKA

Since Sibu­siso Sibisi, founder of

Distinkt Vodka, is a chem­istry grad­u­ate, it’s fit­ting that his prod­uct got its start in a lab­o­ra­tory. That was where he played with the spirit for three long years, re­fin­ing and per­fect­ing it, un­til it was launch-ready in 2015.

This in­ten­sive re­search was well worth it: from its de­but in Gaut­eng’s West Rand, Distinkt is now avail­able in eight prov­inces and Sibisi has his eye on es­tab­lish­ing a na­tional foot­print. “Get­ting the prod­uct to mar­ket was dif­fi­cult,” he ad­mits, “but we de­cided we wouldn’t do things the tra­di­tional way. In­stead, we tar­geted ar­eas where recog­nised brands don’t have a hold: the town­ships.”

The brand ini­tially re­lied on word-of-mouth, although a few cost-ef­fec­tive pro­mo­tions were used, in­clud­ing branded cars and taxis. “Peo­ple were ea­ger to sup­port a lo­cal brand, es­pe­cially since it spoke to the con­scious­ness of black con­sumers.” In fact, he says, some of them were so proud and ex­cited by the prod­uct that they of­fered to pro­mote the brand them­selves, with no pay­ment.

De­spite this warm re­cep­tion, it was still dif­fi­cult to get the brand into ma­jor re­tail chains, largely due to the list­ing process, which tends to dis­ad­van­tage en­trepreneurs. For­tu­nately, Distinkt was picked up by a num­ber of fran­chised, in­de­pen­dently op­er­ated Pick n Pay out­lets, also owned by black business peo­ple who were sym­pa­thetic to the brand’s cause.

An­other chal­lenge came in the form of would-be in­vestors who of­fered their as­sis­tance, but whose ul­ti­mate goal was tak­ing over the brand en­tirely. “We’ve pro­tected our­selves by ap­point­ing a strong le­gal team,” says Sibisi.

Although Distinkt is now well es­tab­lished, its tribu­la­tions aren’t over. Other black-owned brands are en­ter­ing the mar­ket, so it can no longer rely on lo­cal pride as a unique sell­ing point. In­stead, Sibisi’s em­pha­sis­ing the brand’s sin­gu­lar at­tribute: the fact that he makes the spirit him­self, rather than pur­chas­ing a prod­uct and bot­tling it. “We’re tak­ing this one step fur­ther, by plant­ing our own raw ma­te­rial,” he says. “We do ev­ery­thing we can to re­main one step ahead. For ex­am­ple, our equip­ment might not be the most in­no­va­tive, but it’s ex­tremely cost-ef­fec­tive.”

He’s also sur­rounded him­self with an un­beat­able team of engi­neers and spe­cial­ists in mar­ket­ing, fi­nance and IT, so keep­ing all the business pro­cesses in-house has given Distinkt an edge.

“The business be­comes harder to man­age as new leg­is­la­tion comes in, so you have to keep chang­ing. We’re do­ing this by adding new flavoured vod­kas to the brand and es­tab­lish­ing small dis­til­leries in more prov­inces so that the com­pany can keep up with de­mand. Our goal is to spread into the rest of the SADC re­gion be­fore go­ing into the con­ti­nent and, ul­ti­mately, sell­ing in­ter­na­tion­ally,” says Sibisi.

Mayine Gin sold 200 bot­tles within three hours of its launch in Novem­ber 2017 – some­thing its founder, Lu­voyo Jongile, at­tributes to its strong as­so­ci­a­tion with Khayelit­sha, where the spirit was birthed.

“Mayine was the first black-owned craft gin in Africa. The town­ship mar­ket was just wait­ing for this prod­uct,” he says. How­ever, it wasn’t just the town­ship com­mu­nity who was ex­cited; Jongile’s re­ceived en­quiries from as far afield as Ger­many, with tourists ea­ger to in­clude a taste of Mayine Gin in their ex­pe­ri­ence of town­ship life. Now a sta­ple through­out SA, with a pres­ence in sev­eral ma­jor re­tail­ers, the brand’s even re­ceived mag­a­zine men­tions in publi­ca­tions from the DRC and Kenya. Given this mo­men­tum, Jongile’s con­fi­dent that the brand will be ready for ex­port to the rest of the con­ti­nent within the next six months.

Like Sibisi, Jongile says the highly reg­u­lated and bu­reau­cratic na­ture of the al­co­hol in­dus­try can be hard on small play­ers, with leg­is­la­tion and mo­nop­o­lies work­ing against them. Cash flow can be prob­lem­atic too and wait­ing for pay­ments of­ten im­pacts pro­duc­tion. How­ever, he be­lieves the es­tab­lish­ment of a dis­tillery in Khayelit­sha will help ad­dress ca­pac­ity is­sues. At the same time, it will be a fur­ther draw­card for vis­i­tors to the town­ship.

Jongile ex­plains that the con­nec­tion be­tween his brand and its birth­place is in­ex­tri­ca­ble. “In 2015, Hen­nessy Co­gnac re­leased a re­port show­ing SA to be the largest co­gnac-con­sum­ing coun­try in its mar­ket – and Khayelit­sha plays a big role in that,” he says, point­ing out that if town­ship res­i­dents are al­ready buy­ing spir­its, it stands to rea­son that they’d pre­fer a brand which fun­nels prof­its back into their com­mu­nity.

He’s also deep­ened the con­nec­tion with lo­cal con­sumers by, for ex­am­ple, in­fus­ing rooi­bos – a plant as­so­ci­ated with heal­ing in black cul­tures – as a botan­i­cal in the gin, and fea­tur­ing the bull (a sym­bol of strength and wealth) in the logo. Even the name Mayine – “Let it rain” in isiXhosa – holds lo­cal sig­nif­i­cance.

While Mayine has, for a long time, re­lied on so­cial me­dia as a mar­ket­ing chan­nel, this will change as the brand de­vel­ops and be­comes more prof­itable. “We’ll be mak­ing his­tory within the next two to five years,” says Jongile. “We’ve al­ready re­ceived calls from the likes of KWV and Dis­tell – but we want to en­sure our foun­da­tion’s strong be­fore we ex­pand.” In the long term, he adds, that will in­clude ex­pand­ing into Asia.

MAYINE GIN

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