You’d never have pegged Malmsey Rangaka as a wine maker. For one thing, she’s a clinical psychologist who knew nothing about farming of any kind. For another, she had no money to purchase a farm or capital to equip it with the necessary machinery. She’d also never run a business before, didn’t understand the local or international wine market and had no knowledge of how to make wine or, more to the point, how to make a wine label commercially successful.
So the fact that she managed to purchase a wine farm and make a drinkable wine within two years of doing so is remarkable. That her wine is today sold in major retailers around the world is nothing short of astonishing.
Dreaming of change
The story of the M’hudi wine farm starts in the North West Province in 1999 when she and her ‘armchair farmer’ husband started thinking about a new life in farming through the government’s land redistribution programme.
“At the time, my family was scattered across the country and I wanted all of us to be together in one place. I’d heard that the Land Bank was providing a 20% collateral-free deposit for people interested in farming,” she says. She started looking for land to buy, eventually settling on a farm just outside Stellenbosch, attractive not because it was a wine farm but because it had been discounted after being on the market for five years.
“I had visited Cape Town before and driven through the winelands, and I remember looking at people drinking coffee in the street cafés and thinking what a lovely life they must lead. It was only when I went back to look at the farm I wanted to buy that I realised that the beautiful places I had seen were actually part of the winelands, that wine was made by farmers and that the farm I was looking at had originally been a wine farm,”
Overcoming early obstacles
Malmsey’s naiveté and the fact that she knew so little about wine farming probably played in her favour. The farm was derelict and lacked a winery, but at the time all that mattered was that it represented a new beginning for her family.
But, getting the dream off the ground was never going to be easy. For starters, the loan she’d been counting on to make it all happen was never forthcoming. “The Land Bank’s programme was oversubscribed and in the end we never managed to secure the 20% deposit we had hoped for, so we ended up bonding our house,” she says philosophically. “My husband used to joke that if the farm doesn’t work, we’ll have to build a shack, so I thought ‘I’d better get learning’,” she says.
Then there was the fact that, having bought a farm, Malmsey didn’t know what to do with it. “Every day I’d ask the four resident farm workers what needed to be done,” she explains. With their assistance and a great deal of reading and self-study, she limped her way through to the first harvest, pouring her pension savings into the running of the farm while her husband continued to work as a campus principal in Soweto to earn money.
Calling in assistance
By that stage the enormity of what she had taken on was clear. She called on the assistance of her son, Tsêliso, a journalist working in a Johannesburg-based advertising agency. His assistance and journalism skills were to prove indispensable. “He started writing for wine publications and drew the attention of the industry and most importantly of our neighbours, the Greer family from Villiera Wines,” says Malmsey.
The Greers’ invaluable mentorship and support provided the tipping point M’hudi needed. “All of a sudden, all the stuff my workers had been telling me to do suddenly made sense. Until then I’d really been farming blind,” she adds.
Leveraging a unique brand story
In 2005, using the Villiera winery, M’hudi released its first vintage but the Rangaka’s challenges were just beginning. As Malmsey points out, “There are so many brands and some of them have been around for hundreds of years. As a newcomer, the competition is fierce.”
If that’s true of the local industry, it’s even more so of the international wine market, which makes her next achievement all the more astonishing. “I emailed Marks & Spencer in the UK, told them my story and asked them to list my wines. When they were next out in South Africa they came to see me,” she says. What followed was a listing in 200 M&S stores in the UK.
For most products, securing this kind of listing after ‘a couple of emails’ is close to unimaginable, but the Rangaka family’s story of overcoming odds to secure success provides the brand with a key differentiator. It’s a story that Malmsey and her family — all of whom now work in the business — have been expert at leveraging and one that has captured the imagination of more than one group of people.
“At our first Soweto Wine Festival, an American lady loved our wines and our story so much that when she got back to the States she established a company called Heritage Link Brand, specifically to import African wines made by indigenous peoples,” Malmsey explains. Within two years, M’hudi was being sold in 42 of the United States retailers like Whole Foods Market and Supervalu, and today, can be found in Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Nigeria. Success in the local market followed with a listing in Woolworths and a number of restaurants.
Looking to the future
But much remains to be done. “We want to establish ourselves as a wine tourism destination, and need to build our own winery to bring costs down and increase our profit margins. We’re looking for investors to share in this vision,” she says. If the family’s past achievements are anything to go by, that shouldn’t be too difficult to get right. As Malmsey concludes, “I always say that if our story shows anything, it’s that it is possible.”