Launching talent to be the difference

Last week I attended an event at the Oude Libertas in Stellenbosch celebrating three generations of students at the Pinotage Youth Development Academy (PYDA). Based in the town, the academy is a Not For Profit Company (NPC) run and managed by a multi-lingual local South African team.

It was an uplifting afternoon and a happy and vocal reunion of first and second generation students, with hugs and high fives all round. Proceedings were officially started by the beautiful voices of six male students singing a cappella, which elicited ululations and a few catcalls from enthusiastic students past and present in the audience.

According to their flyer, the academy provides wine industry-specific vocational training, work readiness and personal development skills to previously disadvantaged 18 to 25 year olds living in the Cape winelands. The holistic and innovative approach of the academy brings positive transformative change to its students, improving their quality of life and benefiting them as individuals, as well as their families and broader communities.

The 12-month fully integrated programme runs from June to May and combines technical wine skills covering the whole value chain, practical placements on wine farms and, most importantly, personal life skills development – and that’s what makes these students shine.

The curriculum was designed after two years of research and consultation to meet the specific needs of the wine industry and prepare its students according to the demands of potential employers. This pinpointed a need for funky young people with a positive self image who have talent and can grow, according to programme director Nikki Munro (fondly called Mama Nikki by her students). “And that’s what we deliver. We are small, feisty, flexible and fast. We make it happen! “

Selection is tough but unscientific, according to her. “We look for that spark that will make a student fly and let nothing stand in their way. We believe in personal development and change at a soul level. We do soul!”

These enthusiastic and talented youngsters have a tangible aura of confidence. When they leave the academy they are work-ready, and ready to make a difference in their lives and those of their families and communities. Of the first intake of 25 students in 2013, 24 graduated and within five months had a 100% employment rate. In the second year, 25 students graduated and within five months had an 80% placement rate. There is an ethos and practice of ongoing student support, and they’ve already built a strong community of alumni. The third generation of 30 students is due to graduate in May 2016.

 “The academy is very ‘student-centric’, everything we do is with that purpose. Launching talent is what we do and are about,” explained Nikki. “We are behind our students in everything they do. We build relationships for life.”

 A few of the students shared their stories. First generation student Zoliswa Isaacs, who could not afford to go to university after matriculating, loves reading and went to the library every day, where she was shown a form to apply to attend the academy. She had never even heard about Pinotage, let alone the academy. This self-proclaimed introvert almost didn’t make it onto the programme as she was so reserved on the first day of the tough selection process. According to Nikki she came right out of her shell on the second day and proved to be one of their top students. Four months after graduating she got a job at Van Ryn’s Brandy Cellar doing tastings and tours, and was about to start a new job at Laborie as tasting room supervisor!

Born and raised in Stellenbosch by a single mom, family circumstances were difficult for Ongeziwe Notoza but they got through with the help of an extended family of aunts, one of whom saw an advertisement in the local newspaper, the Eikestadnuus. The course is demanding academically with 75% required to pass but this determined student  is now achieving A grades and eager to go into the marketing side of the wine industry.

Nombulelo Gidimi was also raised by a single mother, who worked as a domestic. She worked as a cashier at Game after finishing school and heard about the academy from a former student at the train station. After almost losing hope she is now learning the tools, self-respect and self-discipline to create a brighter future.

Jacques Johannisen, who finished his course in May 2015, had just returned from an inspiring Elsenburg/Burgundy Exchange Programme trip to France, which included the wine regions of Burgundy and Chablis, as well as sightseeing in Paris. Following school he had been delivering fresh produce to restaurants in the Franschhoek valley when he heard about the academy and applied a day before the closing date. “The academy changed my life. It raised my EQ, and taught me how to say no and not always want to impress,” said this graduate, who intends studying winemaking at Elsenburg. “I am enthusiastic, mentally fit and physically ready for anything!”

The celebration ended on a high note, with Nikki announcing that the wine industry pilot has proved such a success that they are adding another campus focused on the fruit sector, with 25 students starting this November. “I told you we were fast!”

Fundamental feedback about PYDA graduates placed in the wine industry has been that they integrate well into teams, irrespective of the race, gender or language dynamics, building bridges wherever they go. They are also intensely curious. “Apparently they ask a lot of questions,” said Nikki with a wry smile.

“We are able to bring about tangible change. Anything is possible!” she concluded.

– Lindsaye Mc Gregor

(See a video of the a cappella singers at and more images at