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She was an outsider to wine culture. Now she’s a major contributor.
April 2, 2017

The first time South Africa’s champion winemaker Ntsiki Biyela tasted wine, she thought it was horrible. “Wine was not really part of my culture,” she said. Biyela grew up in a rural part of the country during apartheid when wine was more popular among the urban white population.

Biyela had originally wanted to study chemical engineering, but couldn’t find scholarships to fund her education. But a scholarship was available in winemaking — a field she didn’t even know existed. “It was an opportunity and I grabbed it,” she said. “I started out part time and then I fell in love.”

Ntsiki Biyela posing with wine casks (Courtesy of Ntsiki Biyela)
(Courtesy photo)

Now she is not just South Africa’s first black female winemaker, but one of her country’s most celebrated vintners. In 2009, she was named South Africa’s Woman Winemaker of the Year, and she is a frequent judge of wine industry competition. Biyela has even created her own brand, Aslina, named after the grandmother who raised her and serves as her spiritual role model.

As a black woman, “my challenges were different from other women winemakers’ challenges,” said Biyela. She noted that visitors to the small winery where she started her career simply did not believe that its resident winemaker was both black and female.

She credits her perseverance to her upbringing and her sense of home, which “grounds you and gives you strength, and then you can go to the world.”

Mindful of how an unexpected opportunity changed her life, Biyela is giving back to her community as a board member of the Pinotage Youth Development Academy, which offers young people from disadvantaged backgrounds the chance for training and placement in the wine industry, and entrance to a world they would not have otherwise experienced.

Many of these young people initially think Biyela’s success is unreachable for them, “but they relate to where I have come from and they realize that they can do it too,” she said. Her advice to women YALI Network members looking to start a business is that it is important “not to forget why you want to do something, because that’s what drives you as a person. … [And] it is the main key of your business.”

As a pioneering black female entrepreneur, she also advises YALI Network members to know their “river,” or source of strength, so that “when you’re thirsty you know where to go and drink” to revitalize.

“I think as young people, when we start working, we forget to go for a refill. We keep on doing, doing, doing without going for a refill, and then that’s the reason why people sometimes end up getting a nervous breakdown or something. It is important to know your refill point,” Biyela said.

Find out more about the challenges women face in the business world and some ideas to overcome them by taking the YALI Network Online Course lesson on Paving the Way for Women Entrepreneurs.

What will you do to help empower women and girls to become leaders? Be sure to check out other YALI Network online courses, follow the hashtag #Africa4Her to get some ideas, and learn more at https://yali.state.gov/4her/.