Thokozani, meaning ‘rejoice’ or ‘celebrate’ in Zulu, is the perfect name to reflect the people behind this brand, who make a point of celebrating every achievement, no matter how big or small. “Building a brand from scratch is no easy task, but by celebrating every achievement, it motivates us to do better and work harder to reach our goals”, says Denise Stubbs, Managing Director and majority shareholder through sweat equity of Thokozani. Apart from winning many awards for their wines in the past, their joy reached new heights when their newly released Cabernet Franc 2019 was awarded three trophies at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine show 2021. It also received the Grand Cru medal, double platinum and a spot on the Top 100 in the 2021 National Wine Challenge. Thokozani also announced its acquisition of majority shareholding in the Diemersfontein Wine Brand earlier this year where Denise was selected and appointed to represent Thokozani on the Board of Diemersfontein.
“These major achievements all happened in an unprecedented time in the wine industry and the world for that matter, with the Covid-19 pandemic that challenged us on so many levels,” says Denise.
Thokozani’s wine is the first and currently only black-owned brand, under the Ovation brand, to sign exclusivity with Woolworths on a national level. “We achieved this important milestone in our business’ development because of the quality of our wines and adherence to the strict requirements Woolworths set for us. We would never get a national listing only because we’re black-owned”, says Denise.
But exclusivity comes at a price, and Thokozani simply didn’t have the cash flow to support such a large order. Knowing when to ask for help is one of Denise’s strengths in business. She approached the South African Wine Industry Transformation Unit (SAWITU), Diemersfontein and the SA Liquor and Brandy Association (SALBA), who connected her with KWV, for interest free loans. “We weren’t looking for hand-outs, but rather a helping hand to cover the investment costs. Woolworths required a specific blend and a large quantity of it needed to be bottled. We paid back the loans with the income we received from the order.” SAWITU played a vital role in the Woolworths transaction and continued their financial support for the following five years due to the significant amounts required for this purchase order.
Thokozani was born from Diemersfontein’s owners, David and Sue Sonnenberg’s desire to do transformation differently. The company is built on a shareholding model, with its biggest asset in property to allow for a solid capital foundation and sustainability for the company to develop from.
Initially, shares were awarded to workers based on a set of qualifying criteria and workers could choose to contribute a small percentage of their salaries to acquire more shares until all of the shares were allocated. Thokozani also manages the conference facility on Diemersfontein Estate as an additional income stream.
Denise played a key role in the establishment of the Thokozani Group of Companies and David, being involved in Thokozani’s growth path from the start, provides guidance on their long-term planning and expansion models. “Our business model is developed to ensure sustainability and job security for workers,” says Denise.
When Covid-19 hit South Africa in March 2020, the irregular and prolonged bans on alcohol sales caught the wine industry off-guard and threatened the same job security Thokozani seeks to protect. “With the sudden loss of income at critical times in our wine production cycle and peak tourist seasons, we were seriously concerned about our wines piling up in storage and our inability to pay our workers’ salaries. Thankfully SAWITU offered a Covid relief fund for a period of nine months, which greatly assisted us to keep our people employed.”
Life before Covid-19
“It’s almost surreal to think back to life before Covid. So much has changed in such a small space of time.” Denise, who leads by example, actively participated in many national and international trade shows as part of Thokozani’s brand positioning strategy. With the assistance of SAWITU, they participated in international wine shows such as Prowein Germany and Prowein China and traveled to Scandinavia, where they had engagements with the embassies in Denmark and Sweden as well as major beverage retailers Systembolaget in Sweden, Vinmonopolet in Norway and ALKO in Finland.
Their trade mission to Ghana, in collaboration with Wesgro, proved to be highly successful and both Thokozani and Diemersfontein brands are exported to this vibrant African market.
Back home, their participation in the world-class Cape Wine Show in 2018 gave Thokozani exposure to a wide range of international importers and national supermarkets, which was very impactful for their brand. SAWITU also supported their participation at the Tops@Spar trade and consumer shows in Durban and East London, which are growing markets for Thokozani’s Spumante and Ovation range. Resourced by SAWITU’s marketing funds, Thokozani was able to build capacity with a contract post in Kwazulu-Natal to market the Spumante and promote a current employee to brand ambassador to secure and increase local retail and consumer sales.
While they prefer the direct contact with current and potential clients, like most other companies, Thokozani is making use of online platforms to conduct their business. Life as we know it might have drastically changed, but it didn’t stop the positive energy and innovative thinking of Thokozani’s dynamic team.
Through all the hardship, hard work and successes Thokozani will be declaring a dividend to all their shareholders by 1 September 2021.