This week we’re honouring and giving thanks to Silvana and Shareen from AFRICAN EQUATIONS & ZARI ALCOHOL-FREE PRODUCTS. They are the next two women in the Celebrating Women series. This series aims to showcase the work of brave and risk taking South African women. The Q & A will help you to get to know them and their brand better.
- Tell us a bit about yourself?
SILVANA DANTU, CO-FOUNDER OF AFRICAN EQUATIONS & ZARI ALCOHOL-FREE PRODUCTS
I am lucky in that I’ve always loved the work I’ve done: I started my career at Readers Digest in 1979, where I had many opportunities to study and follow a career path in journalism. It was a very nurturing environment that introduced me to local and global networks, and the opportunities that came with that.
I was involved with setting up the new PR department in Parliament in 1994 when Nelson Mandela had just been released and the message was “The doors of Parliament are open!”. That was an amazing period of innovation and reflection and meeting people from all over the planet. Shortly after that, I joined the team involved in setting up the Robben Island Museum – responsible for the transformation of Robben Island from a prison to a heritage site and place of hope.
That was where I met my business partner Shareen Parker, who was responsible for heritage and tourism development on the Island. We formed our company, African Equations three years later, focusing on tourism development, heritage research, communications and marketing. We were lucky to work on a number of significant projects and we were able to empower other people along the way – at one stage, we employed 24 people.
- What inspired you to start your Company?
In this period, we realised that the tourism profile had changed quite significantly – there was a marked increase in tourists from Africa and the Middle East – and sadly there was very little on offer for these “new” tourists in terms of food and drink. They were being taken to the Winelands – one of the Western Cape’s “Big 5”, but they were looking for something different. Most didn’t partake of alcohol – for health reasons, but also for religious reasons.
We realised that there was a gap in the market and so the journey began to develop a range of premium alcohol-free beverages, on par with South African export wines. Traditionally those who don’t drink alcohol on flights and even top restaurants are offered sodas or fruit juice, but there is a huge market for the emerging middle classes from the Middle East, Africa and China who are seeking something of better quality and presentation – but without the alcohol.
- What are the challenges of being a wholly woman-owned company in a male-dominated industryand the lessons you’ve learned along the way?
This journey began in 2009 – and it’s been an exacting journey! We knew very little about developing a product in the wine-agri industry. There are so many different layers –from learning about cultivars – to bottling, price points, accessing retail and pursuing exports, to ensuring you have enough juice on an annual basis. Never mind supply-chain management!
The challenges we’ve had to deal with are that the agri-industry is untransformed.… it is male-dominated, and frankly, white male-dominated. Successful mentorships or partnerships are rare. And so I think transformation in terms of empowerment of women is one issue and BEE is a different issue. Its’ very sad because you spend a huge amount of time, which translates into money, nurturing these relationships that come to nothing.
Government’s intention also is to be supportive but it’s often in areas where the fit never works … they’re willing to assist you to set up a bottling plant, when all you really need is assistance with exposing your product to markets; or they are keen to offer you a farm – but you don’t come from a farming background so you would face more challenges. These processes are very distracting – so sticking to your core business and knowing what assistance to accept – can be very challenging.
Access to markets and convincing the hospitality industry to stock the product is a whole different challenge – they tend to evaluate the product on price only and many buyers are not yet convinced that there is a demand for premium alcohol-free products. Our travels in China, Asia and the Middle East have verified the demand from upwardly mobile consumers who are health-conscious and hip and wish to explore drinks which are different from the usual soft drinks. Some retailers like Pick ‘n Pay have developed a new category in their supermarkets called Mixology, to host products like ZARI, alcohol free beers, kombucha and energy drinks.
- What differentiates you from other brands in the industry?
I do believe we’ve interrupted the wine industry by being bold around developing a premium alcohol-free wine because this has been dismissed for years by farmers who say there is no interest. I believe we can take credit for pioneering and investing in this category. We’ve taken a simple grape juice to the next level.
We have produced ZARI- our first beverage in the alcohol-free category. It’s a premium product – developed from a single cultivar – a Muscat grape –it has no concentrate, is not diluted and has no added sugar. It is beautifully branded, great tasting and on-trend. We’ve developed a few different products in red and white grape: a screw-cap lifestyle bottle, and a bubbly. Soon we’ll launch a BRUT bubbly – a low-sugar, dry bubbly which is a first in the alcohol-free beverage category; and a Zari-tini, which is an attractively packaged “Baby Cham”-type product.
- Tell us about a big milestone celebrated in your business?
It’s been 9 years of hard work but we are visible now. We’ve got to the point where we are confident about our processes, we have good relationships with service providers and we sell at Pick ‘n Pay nationally. Our first export order to Dubai in January 2014 was a highlight – as is supplying Sun City- our biggest client. We also feature on Absolutely Halaal – an online sales platform based in Singapore. I believe we’ve carved a little niche against the odds of being black women entrepreneurs with limited financial resources.
- What advice would you pass along to women wanting to start their own business?
My advice to women wanting to start their own business? Do it – it’s the only way to go! There are too many women in business who are running the show for others. We are inherently leaders, we are mothers, organisers. Getting a business off the ground is hugely challenging and strategic partnerships are very important. You also need someone who has a good financial head and – very importantly – get yourself a damn good mentor! Be clear and focused on your vision – if you’re making a beverage, don’t try to be a farmer- and a media strategist – and a beverage innovator. Focus.
I decided to try their Rooibos Refresher Mocktail :
THE ROOIBOS REFRESHER
2 rooibos teabags
2 lemongrass stalks, split lengthways
1⁄2 cups (375ml) boiling water
small handful of fresh basil leaves
1 small lime, sliced
2 cups (500ml) ZARI Lifestyle
White 1⁄4 cup (60ml) fresh orange juice
ice, to serve
1.) Place the rooibos teabags and lemongrass in a small bowl(I used a large dispenser from the beginning). Pour the boiling water into the bowl and allow to steep for 5 minutes. Remove the teabags from the bowl, then set aside to cool and infuse.
2.) Remove the lemongrass stalks from the cooled tea. Pour the tea into a large jug and add the basil leaves and lime slices.
3.) Top up with ZARI Lifestyle White and the orange juice. Stir gently, then serve with ice.
Producing a non-alcholic product that ties in with the South African culture of celebrating with bubbles sets them apart from others in the industry. They give people the chance to be part of the celebration without having to consume alcohol. The Rooibos Refresher Mocktail that I tried was super tasty and the perfect refresher for hosting my family for Sunday Lunch.
You can read more about the brand or try some of their other recipes on their website.