A perfect brew of science and tradition

A perfect brew of science and tradition

As #WomensMonth draws to a close, Stellenbosch University is spotlighting Reitumetse Kholumo. Reitumetse, currently enrolled for her Master’s in Chemical Engineering, is guided by her cultural heritage to explore the science behind traditional beer brewing to help traditional brewers be more productive and profitable.”

In 2021, she partnered with local brewers from Kayamandi to establish Kwela Brews to support women in self-empowerment. The name is derived from the title of the popular Mafikizolo song, “Kwela Kwela”, about women having to hide their beer-brewing activities from the police during apartheid. Read more about her vision for this social enterprise.

Weddings, funerals, traditional thanksgivings – traditional beer is enjoyed at any event that acknowledges the ancestors, explains Reitumetse Kholumo, a chemical engineering master’s student at Stellenbosch University (SU). It is an intrinsic part of African culture, and a skill that she too has learned from her grandmothers, as they have from theirs over generations.

But it was only when she left Welkom in the Free State to study engineering at the University of Cape Town that Kholumo began to understand the “how” of traditional beer brewing from a scientific perspective, which made her think about harnessing this knowledge to help fellow traditional brewers be more productive and profitable.

Kholumo’s studies covered many of the scientific processes that her grandmothers used in traditional beer brewing, even though they did not have the technical terminology to explain what they were doing. Brewers of traditional African beer naturally adopt these processes and strategies with a wholistic lens, she explains. “It just proved that indigenous practices are not as backward as they are often perceived to be. People who have been alienated from formal education do create and preserve knowledge that is integral to their context.”

She started speaking with brewers in the community of Kayamandi about their business experiences and the struggle to get their products to market, soon after moving to Stellenbosch to start her master’s degree. A partnership with two local brewers in 2021 led to the establishment of Kwela Brews. Kholumo explains that the name comes from the title of the popular Mafikizolo song, “Kwela Kwela”, about women having to hide their beer-brewing activities from the police during apartheid. “This was important to show that women have always found a way to provide for their families as best they could, even as a form of resistance.”

The focus of Kwela Brews is on supporting women in their own self-empowerment, so that they can become more financially independent and sustainable. Brewers bring their inherited beer-brewing wisdom to the venture, and Kholumo helps with quality control and manufacturing support. She also introduces their products to new customers and restaurants, and supplies events and local markets. Kholumo adds that women are the custodians of indigenous knowledge systems related to everything from food to medicine, which is why she felt compelled to be involved in an enterprise that would combine tradition and science in a way that would empower women.

Traditional African beer is naturally nutritious and high in vitamins, amino acids and probiotics. In a market flooded with a variety of beers, Kholumo says she sees no need to deviate from the traditions of her foremothers. “Kwela Brews produces proudly traditional South African beer.” It contains no additional sugar or chemicals and is presented at events as it would be served at a cultural gathering: in a coconut shell or gourd.

Kholumo says the women, whose names and stories are shared when the beer is sold to customers, welcomed her partnership to streamline a practice that is steeped in so much tradition. “I am not separate from this tradition. Like them, I come from a line of beer-brewing women.” While one would expect these master brewers to fiercely safeguard their recipes, there’s no secrecy when it comes to traditional beer brewing, she adds. It is very much a community effort. And, furthermore, each batch has its own unique flavour influenced by the fermentation time, the bacteria used and even the weather at the time it is made. No two brews taste the same.

Guided by her cultural heritage, there are also advisors who have helped along the way. One of the most influential is her grandmother, Mamodise Matjele, an indigenous brewing specialist with over 30 years’ homebrewing experience. Kholumo is also supported by Dr Siew Tai, an associate professor in SU’s Department of Chemical Engineering, and Janus Luterek, a consumer and intellectual property law specialist who has helped her navigate Kwela Brews regulatory compliance.

Although her journey with Kwela Brews is in its early stages, Kholumo says it has been an opportunity to find local solutions to African problems. “As an engineering student and a founder of a social enterprise that works with indigenous bioprocessing knowledge, I have learned that the continent is rich in knowledge that is context-specific and wholesome. By embracing knowledge equity, we not only have the opportunity of centring the voices that are most marginalised, but we also co-create better solutions for our continent.”

📸: Stefan Els

(Article by Corporate Communication & Marketing [Anél Lewis])