With the ultimate goal of addressing unemployment among the youth in rural areas, the PinotageYouth Development Academy opened its doors in June 2013. Although many of the students face enormous social challenges at home and in their communities, they have shown resilience and now, one year later, the first group of talented youngsters are ready to follow their dreams in the wine industry.

The Academy is the brainchild of UK-based Dame Hilary Cropper Charitable Foundation. During a chance meeting between some of the trustees and a South African tasting room assistant, Fennel Adams, they were astonished by his knowledge and enthusiasm – even more so because he never had the opportunity to further his studies.

The trustees conducted a needs analysis in South Africa and set out to explore available options; in the end, identifying the requirement for vocational training across the entire wine value chain.

The programme is endorsed by Winetech and following industry research by an advisory board over two years, the South African office was established in January 2013, after which the first group of 25 students started on the first of June last year.
Although the Pinotage Youth Development Academy’s name doesn’t actually have anything to do with Pinotage, it is, like the cultivar, uniquely South African.

The programme runs for 12 months, from June to May, to follow the vine’s development and therefore ensure embedded education and training. The curriculum focuses on the entire value chain and technical training is combined with practical experience at placement partner wineries where students experience everything from viticulture and winemaking to sales, marketing and tourism.

Aside from the technical and practical training – which constitutes about 60% of the curriculum – the programme also strongly focuses on personal development. “We believe there is a gap in the wine industry at entry level for young and feisty people who can learn fast and grow quickly,” explains programme director, Nikki Munro.

“The message from producers is that they prefer to work with people who understand the bigger picture; people who are confident, have a mental readiness and are prepared for a work environment. They regard this as much more important than technical skills, which can be easily taught.”

In order to prepare students for the work environment, the Academy operates differently from other training institutes. Theo Oldjohn, student support manager, explains that it runs like a workplace, with strict discipline and consequences for being late, etc.

“Training takes place for 231 days a year – more than any other institute – and it is a full-time, very intense programme. The required pass rate is 75% and although some students have had to rewrite some of their tests, all of them reached these high standards,” he says.

Listening to Theo and Nikki, it becomes clear that this is an elite group of motivated and hard-working youngsters. And this is no accident – Theo explains that rigorous evaluation takes place before each year’s 25 students are selected.

Applicants need to have passed matric, be between 18 and 25 years old, previously disadvantaged and not able to afford to study. For the pilot programme – and purely for practical reasons – only students from Stellenbosch and Paarl were considered. This geographic criterion has been extended to now also include Franschhoek, with the second year of the programme starting in June 2014.

From the more or less 200 applicants, about 130 are chosen to undergo information and group work sessions, as well as aptitude testing. From there, 50 prospective students are selected to go on a two-day recruitment camp – the final part of the selection process.

Nikki explains that when they pick students, it is not so much about who they are on paper, but rather who they are in real life – “we look for people with woema, with a spark and enthusiasm. The selection process is tough and we aim to get students that are committed to the programme,” she says.

In order to make it through the programme, most of the students had to overcome massive personal and social challenges – not the least being a language barrier, with English a third language for most.

Ntombozuko Mthini loves people and loves to talk, but being Xhosa, she found it challenging – especially when working with Afrikaans-speaking people during her placements. But, she persevered, worked hard and engaged with her colleagues, and in the process made new friends and gained valuable work and life experience.

Ntombozuko’s family has a very stereotypical view of alcohol, including wine, and when she told them about the programme, her father was afraid that she would become an alcoholic. Although he has now grown to accept her new journey, he remains sceptical about the industry.

Zuko Dingashe’s family was similarly against his decision to join the programme, but he managed to convince them otherwise. He even got his family and friends to swop beer for wine, teaching them about the different aromas and styles.

Although Zuko first studied and worked in engineering, he has always been interested in the wine industry and despite various challenges – not the least being when he was falsely arrested and jailed for an alleged robbery – he managed to successfully complete the programme.

Zuko has a real passion for wine; he loves to talk about it and to teach others. He hopes to become a qualified sommelier one day and in order to afford an accredited sommelier course, he plans to work in a tasting room after graduation, saving money and gaining more experience.

Nikki explains that, like Zuko and Ntombozuko, all of their students are very clear as to where they fit into the wine value chain. “We regularly evaluate possible gaps in the industry, to see where employees are most needed. We aim to have graduates that are able to earn sustainably,” she says.

The Academy currently works closely with 17 placement partner wineries, but hope to expand this number in the future. In addition to offering work placements during the course of the programme, these businesses might also permanently employ some of the students in the future.

While the Cropper Foundation funded the research, development and set-up costs, as well as contributes towards other fixed costs, the Academy needs to obtain matching funds for student costs. Nikki explains that although they are working with various ad-hoc sponsors, the programme needs more funding.

With the start of a new year for the programme and another 25 bright-eyed students entering the system, Nikki explains that they want to grow the Academy, doubling the yearly numbers by 2015. They also hope to eventually expand this initiative to other agricultural sectors.

By aiming to contribute towards broader transformation, the Academy has succeeded in developing students that are mentally prepared and technically able to start their journey in the wine industry. These youngsters have the competitive edge and are bringing sustainable change to their families, communities and the industry, all while chasing after their dreams.


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