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Local wine Thokozani’s success under the Ovation brand

| Wine and liquor

Born and brought up in the tiny town of Pniel in the Western Cape, Denise Stubbs never imagined that she would one day be running a highly successful, black-owned wine and hospitality brand.

Thokozani Wines, Conferences and Guesthouse are affiliated to the Diemersfontein wine estate, which is renowned for its coffee-chocolate Pinotage.

Thokozani means “celebration”.

“I grew up running among the vines and my parents were both labourers on the farms. As a little girl, I always saw the wine sector as the Hollywood of the agriculture industry. Although the wine sector fascinated me from a young age, my passion was initially in fashion design,” she says.

However, after completing her degree and going on to study project management, Denise’s path took a turn when she met David Sonnenberg, the owner of Diemersfontein.

“He wanted to do something to contribute towards transformation in the industry and together we started researching the project, looking at other wine farms’ broad-based black economic empowerment (BBBEE) models.”

David was keen to leave a sustainable legacy, while making a discernible difference in the lives of his employees.

That was in 2005.

In 2007, Diemersfontein launched its empowerment company, Thokozani, with 35 staff shareholders, including the white managers, to avoid artificially splitting the workforce.

“You don’t throw away the hand that feeds the child,” Denise explains.

Each worker with at least one year’s service and a willingness to participate, was given R10 000 to R20 000 worth of shares in Thokozani, depending on their seniority.

This was conditional on their staying and working on the farm for five years.

In addition, they contribute 2% of their salaries each month to buying more shares in Thokozani.

Today, Denise is the managing director of Thokozani, which has 65 staff members with an 80% shareholding.

A little more than 10 years later, she has taken Thokozani to levels of both international and local success, with an exclusive retail deal with Woolworths.

The brand, which is sold in Woolworths’ wine section as Ovation wines, has been well received by customers.

Rebecca Constable, senior wine buyer at Woolworths Food, says the retailer saw an opportunity to add a BBBEE wine supplier to its portfolio and initiated a research project to evaluate various suppliers.

“The research project was essentially a benchmarking exercise that focused on wine quality and value for money, as well as business values and sustainability factors.

“Thokozani proved to be a great supplier fit for us in that they didn’t just produce quality, affordable wines, but also were prepared to learn from the market research and grow with the brand,” she explains.

Constable says that with South Africa being a strong wine-producing country and Woolworths’ drive to support local producers, over 90% of Woolworths’ wines are produced in South Africa and wine sales contribute 2% to the overall Woolworths Foods business. The first Ovation wines (Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Pinotage varietals) were launched nationally in Woolworths Food stores in October 2015.

Regarding the name change, Denise explains that research showed that the name Thokozani was not a name that sold well in South Africa, as she tried numerous times to list wines under the name Thokozani, but was unsuccessful. Woolworths and team Thokozani worked together on a name that would be embraced by the consumer.

“We came up with the branding for Ovation after we realised that, unfortunately, the South African market is still sceptical of social-upliftment projects. There is still an assumption that BEE products are inferior because you are learning the ropes,” she says.

Internationally, Thokozani wines are enjoyed as a premium wine, selling at R110 a bottle while a bottle of Ovation wine at Woolworths goes for R60 to R70 a bottle.

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