Melanie Verwoerd: Worried about SA? These entrepreneurs will give you hope


If we are serious about growing the economy and creating jobs, we need to support these young people – even though they don't seem to expect any help or handouts, writes Melanie Verwoerd.

A wave of negativity has spread over South Africa. Everywhere I go, people talk about how bad things are, what the future (if there is a future) holds and why emigration seems to be a good idea. "There is nothing good anymore to get excited about," one businessman told me recently.

Well, there is – more than you think. Let me tell you of one good news story. Fin24 recently reported on a prestigious international prize that the makers of The Duchess non-alcoholic gin and tonic won.

I know the founder and managing director of the company, Johannes le Roux. I'll embarrass him by acknowledging that I have known him since he was 4 years old. Johannes always had plans. Even in primary school, when the other kids were running around on the beach, he would sit with me and discuss his business ideas.

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At the age of 25 he came up with the idea to pre-mix brandy and Coke and call it Brannas. He went around Afrikaner festivals and it quickly became a huge success. Six months after the launch KWV bought a share in the company. 

Shortly after, on a trip to the Netherlands, he was reflecting on the huge growth in the demand for non-alcoholic drinks. (According to a report by Bon Appétit, the market for low to zero-alcohol beverages in the US is expected to grow by 32% between 2018 and 2022.)

He also realised that gin and tonic was the in-thing. He came back to South Africa and decided to make a non-alcoholic, sugar free, pre-mixed gin and tonic. His botanist/lawyer aunt helped with a floral mix and so The Duchess was born.

Johannes and his business partner, Inus Smuts, were not interested in playing small (no more music festivals) and convinced Spar, Makro, Pick n Pay and Yuppiechef to stock the product. In the first two years they sold 500 000 units and sales in South Africa have grown exponentially since then. (Like any clever businessman he won't tell me exactly how much they are selling now.) 

Johannes also wanted to expand to the highly competitive overseas markets. He first went back to the Netherlands, where the original idea came from. All the childhood practice on the beach clearly helped, since The Duchess is now sold in the 600 stores of Albert Heijn, the Dutch mega-supermarket group.

Next he went to Belgium where he convinced Delhaize to stock The Duchess in their 400 stores. He then set his sights on Australia where Dan Murphy's agreed to put it in their 230 stores.

Recently it was announced that AB InBev (the biggest global brewer) had bought shares in The Duchess drink company. This is a massive investment in a local beverage brand and apparently the first of its kind in South Africa.

Just in case you think that Johannes comes from a big-money family or business experience – he doesn't. His dad is a psychologist and mum a teacher. He is just a young Afrikaans guy who is dreaming big and determined to make it work.

More importantly, he is one of a group of young people of all races who are passionate about this country and who are not buying into the negative narrative of the older generation. They recognise that there are opportunities here and understand that entrepreneurship is the way to go.

These millennials are also far more at home in a globalised world than those of us who grew up during the isolation years of apartheid South Africa – so they think far beyond our borders.

When I texted Johannes to ask about the details of the company, he responded: "I think the future of South Africa lies in entrepreneurs who can scale their innovations globally and partner with international players. I have found that as South Africans we have a unique way of problem solving and an intrinsic drive to build value."

If we are serious about growing the economy and creating jobs, we need to support these young people – even though they don't seem to expect any help or handouts.

Le Roux employs 18 people directly in The Duchess Drinks Company and more than 50 indirectly and he is planning to launch in the US and the UK next.

Not bad for a young man who is only 30 years of age!

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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