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Danielle Schoeman

Inspirational Female Founder Spotlight: Danielle Schoeman, Mahala Botanical

Danielle is the co-founder of exciting new alcohol-free spirit, Mahala Botanical, which delivers a healthy, alcohol-free beverage option for those who don’t want to compromise on taste or quality. Born and bred in Cape Town, South Africa, Danielle graduated from Stellenbosch University with a business degree and entered the corporate world. Her dream of creating her own drinks grew and eventually led her to leave her office life for a farm in the Karoo, where she first experimented with making her own tequila. In 2019, she established Doña Distillery with the dream to disrupt the industry with custom-built vacuum stills (the only ones in Africa at the time) and an ambitious goal to bring new and exciting spirits to the local and international market. By 2020 Doña had won multiple awards, including the trophy for the Best Low/No-alcohol Drink, Best Ready-to-Drink and a gold medal for their Vodka at the prestigious Michelangelo International Spirit awards.

Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?

I created Doña Distillery, the home of our new alcohol-free spirit Mahala Botanical, in 2019 following a number of years working in the financial industry.

Developing and distilling sprits has been a passion since I can remember. After studying and working in the financial industry for a few years, I knew I had to follow my heart and equip myself with the necessary skills if I was to turn my passion into a profession, so I learned from local farmers about harvesting and growing local botanicals (and how to drive a tractor); I learned from winemakers about different yeasts and fermentation; from other distillers, I learned about the distillation process; and from engineers, about building the stills and programming the equipment. My focus was on creating a premium, quality product – and this you can only do if you know the complete process.

Mahala is just that – I harvest some of the botanicals myself, and distil the entire product in my distillery. We hand-bottle and label every bottle ourselves to ensure a top-quality premium product. We own the entire production process from farm to class, ensuring that we have complete control of the product quality from start to finish.

How did the idea come to you for the company?

Mahala was born out of a desire to create a premium, healthy and distinctive alcohol-free spirit in a category that currently offers little choice for consumers seeking quality, sugar-free and alcohol-free alternatives.

When I was developing Mahala in South Africa, there were very few non-alcoholic options, but there was an obvious growing demand for more choice in this category and I wanted to set out to address this need with a premium and healthy alcohol-free spirit.

How did you achieve awareness?

In South Africa, where Mahala is produced, we have grown awareness by attending local events, hosting tastings and through social media. We are currently launching Mahala into the UK, growing our distribution and also creating awareness amongst target audiences through live event tastings, and a comprehensive social and traditional media campaign.

How have you been able to gain funding and grow?

My co-founder, Paul Scanlon, and I funded the brand entirely by ourselves in the first year and approached a number of investors in late 2021, managing full funding via an SEIS scheme. The alcohol-free category is growing exponentially and was worth >$10bn in 2021, with a CAGR growth rate of +14% projected between by 2025, so we feel that it’s an exciting time for Mahala to enter the marketplace, with a unique offering to the drinks that are already available.

What are the key successes?

Finding the right partner was a key moment for Mahala – I was lucky enough to find someone as passionate about the product and industry as I am and who has more experience in certain areas of the business (Paul Scanlon is the former Managing Director of Pernod Ricard South Africa), which allows me to focus on the things that I do best!

In 2020, Mahala was awarded the prestigious Trophy for Best No/Low Alcohol Spirits at the prestigious Michelangelo International Awards, and we’ve received some powerful endorsements from leading figures in the food, wines and spirits industry, which validates the taste credentials of this exciting new spirit.

What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?

Honestly, the challenges are never ending, but that is part of why I love being an entrepreneur and business owner – you have to adapt, pivot, and come up with innovative ways of solving complex problems.

Currently our biggest challenge is education around the non-alcoholic category and teaching the consumer on how to drink a non-alcoholic sprit, and we have addressed this by focussing on the perfect serve and how to mix Mahala to create your favourite non-alcoholic cocktail.

Education around the production process of Mahala is also key: Mahala is produced in the same way as a premium spirit – through fermentation and distillation, but not all alcohol-free products are created in this way, so we want our customers to understand and appreciate what Mahala offers them.

What are your plans now/for the future?

Our current focus is on successfully launching Mahala into the UK market and continuing to drive wider brand awareness. In the future, we will look to further expand the Mahala range – I have already started developing our second variant!

What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?

This will sound extremely cliché, but in order to start your own business or brand, you have to love what you do. It makes the sacrifices, long hours and hard work worth it. Don’t wait for someone to acknowledge your business idea: be fearless and brave, and believe in yourself.

Can you share your top tips for entrepreneurial success?

  • Trust yourself
  • Fail fast and pivot quickly
  • Be humble and learn from people who are more knowledgeable than you
  • Take time to enjoy your successes
  • Don’t compromise on quality

Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most and why?

  • Lorna Scott, one of the very few female distillers in Africa. She is also much more than that – her award-winning gin brand was born from her passion for the indigenous plants that grow in South Africa and to create awareness and protect South Africa’s floral kingdom. She also empowers and employs women in her community, with 75% of her current staff local women.
  • Ben Branson, who invented one of the world’s first distilled alcohol-free spirit brands. He was a big part of the creation of the alcohol-free category.
  • My Dad – initially when I told him that I was making a non-alcoholic spirit he thought it was a terrible idea and tried to talk me out of it; but he has since been my biggest supporter, cheerleader and sounding board.

What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?

Nelson Mandela played such a crucial role in South Africa’s history and inspired so many people. Both my quotes are from this great man – a personal hero of mine. 

  • “Do not judge me by my successes; judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” – Nelson Mandela
  • “Everyone can rise above their circumstances and achieve success if they are dedicated to and passionate about what they do.” – Nelson Mandela

What are your Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn social handles and also website links so our readers can connect with you?