We chat to the owner of Koni Wines about shifting direction in her 40s.
Bubbly, confident and passionate: these are the three words that come to mind when you meet Koni Maliehe. And it’s these qualities that have equipped her to make a success of her business, Koni Wines, even during one of the toughest years the industry has ever faced.
“There’s nothing that beats hard work and nothing that beats relationships,” she says – two things that become more pertinent than ever in her life when she found herself without money for electricity, data or even petrol by the end of 2017.
Koni made the shift from working in human resources for a big corporate to starting her own business in 2014 at the age of 45 years. Koni partnered with a wine supplier in Paarl. There, they produce the wines, while Koni is responsible for selecting the wines, the labelling and the bottling of the wines. “Johan is my mentor, someone I trust to guide me in this industry. It’s a beautiful working relationship. Here I am, this black woman, working with this Afrikaans guy, and it’s working well. And since I started working with Johan, I see where I’m going. It’s a relationship I will nurture for a long time, even when I decide to start my own production line, I think he will be there. So Koni Wines is owned by me 100% – it’s a black-owned brand – and then I work with these key stakeholders supporting me,” she explains.
Despite knowing it would be a long, difficult journey to reach success, she still was not fully prepared for the road ahead. “After I resigned, I had some savings, and I thought after two years, this business should be giving me income. At least my savings will last until then. But by 2017/2018, the money was finished – literally zero. And the business wasn’t going anywhere slowly. It was the most humiliating season of my life. But it was also such a humbling experience.”
She was forced to sell her car just to make ends meet, and for a year, she woke up at 5am to take the train to the CTICC to present her wine at various exhibitions. But she kept telling herself the next opportunity could be around the corner. And in 2019 things started to get better. Koni credits this to her relationship-building skills. “My business is where it is today because of how I made people feel, in my own small way,” she says.
Of course, just as things started to improve, the pandemic hit. In 2019, Koni was preparing for exports in 2020, and she had qualified to present her wine in Germany and she had been invited by the embassy in Bucharest. Her tickets were booked and she was ready to go international, but that trip was cancelled. But Koni still wasn’t ready to give up – and, once again, her patience and hard work paid off.
“I had to look within and make the most of the local market – which is also very competitive. But, miraculously, when we started selling wine again in June last year, I sold more wine than I had in the previous year! By the end of the year, I had sold more than 2,500 bottles (compared to only 500 the period before). It showed me that there is the potential for my brand to really grow, given the opportunity and the platform.”
That opportunity came from Hollard, who launched a campaign offering their own advertising space to deserving SMEs. A client of Koni’s, who she didn’t know worked for Hollard, was the one to nominate her. “I was so shocked!” she exclaims. “I remember when things were so tough in 2017, I would drive past those billboards, and I would think: I wish one day I could see Koni Wines on one of these.”
The campaign has opened doors for Koni Wines – she just had a first export deal from Botswana and now they want to extend to Zambia, and she’s currently engaging with restaurant owners in Scotland. So it seems her dream of going international is still within reach.
Koni is one ambitious woman and cracking the wine industry is only one part of her journey. When she decided a change was in order, she listed five things she would want to do instead of working in human resources. “I wanted to choose businesses where I feel like I’m not working even when I am working. I wanted something that would complement my skills and my personality. Besides wine, I love fashion. I studied a bit of fashion, so I wanted to do an online boutique, but I felt it wasn’t the right time. So next I may be doing something in the fashion space, maybe with shoes!”
Equally important to her is giving back. “I would like to build Koni Wines to be so successful that I could give back, especially in the Eastern Cape, where I’m from. There are so many schools in need, so many girls in need. As the company progresses, I don’t want to forget where I come from. All these donations I receive – they’re to remind me to give back. On my website, we have a line asking charities to drop us a line because I want to start shortlisting charities that I could work with to make a difference. You can’t be a human being operating in a vacuum – we are built by others.”
How can you help Koni reach her dreams? By ordering wine, of course! Koni says the best way is via her online shop or email. Making wine accessible to all is very close to her heart, as it’s something she was introduced to when she moved to the Western Cape so her range of 10 wines guarantees something for everyone.
“I don’t label wine drinkers based on what they drink,” she explains. So for those who are new to wine, she recommends her rosé – “which is not too sweet, by the way” – or her natural sweet white. If you’re a red wine drinker, she recommends the bestselling merlot.