How many years have you been in the business? Tell me briefly about your background and your current position today.
I’m Mulongo Binti Simiyu, born and raised in Kenya. I lived abroad (Europe) for 10 years before heading back home to Kenya. I consider myself as a citizen of the world. I have been working in the wine industry for the last 7 years and built my company, Mulongo Wine and Spice, over a period of 4 years ago. My company specializes in sourcing wines from independent producers and rare grapes from France and Spain. My background is quite different, I have an MBA in Luxury Brand Management, not necessarily focused on the wine industry. However, while studying in Bordeaux, I would bring a few bottles with me to Kenya for my family and friends. I developed a keen interest in wine from rare grapes, small batch unique wines which arenot readily found on the Kenyan market. I started catering for my friends’ functions , such as weddings and other events, which translated to my company’s’ organic growth. Never in a million years had i thought that I’d be in the wine industry.
Did you have a particular “aha!” moment that propelled you into wine?
One of my first AHA moments was when I tasted aromatic wines. I cannot get enough of Albariño, Riesling, Torrontés, Muscat and the rest of the family of wines. The tropical aromas reminded me of my childhood eating pineapple and mangoes picked on my parent’s farm. In addition, they paired beautifully with spicy cuisines and this made me feel like home.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
When my clients wear a smile and tell me that I make the most appropriate description of the wines. They are also happy to learn that one can pair Kenyan cuisines with a wide range of styles. I want my clients to feel safe with me and know that I respect their tastes and their needs come first. In addition, I view wine as passion that can break boundaries and bring diverse cultures together. It’s a celebration of life.
Can you describe any prejudices you’ve experienced in this industry as a woman?
Being a woman is not easy at all and being of African descent is even harder. I’m valiant and with bold personality and this has also come at a cost. People, especially in Europe, get shocked that I’m smart enough to understand wine and that i’m the CEO of my small company. My company is small and still people get intimidated by me for no reason.
Women are victims of the patriarchy as well, and often are more judgmental of other women as a result. How can we as women become more aware of our own prejudice towards each other and change that behavior?
Yes indeed, we’re subjected to patriarchy, I often get comments like “you need to marry a man to run your company” or questions like “where is your father?”. On the other hand, between women we are too critical. I have no idea where this comes from because together were strong and can build each other. We need to learn to celebrate each other and this can be done by encouraging one another. Women need to be mentored at an early young age. Young girls need to empowered and taught to celebrate each other.
When it comes to wine, what benefits do you think we’ll see as a community by better supporting women?
Women are very caring and patient. The wine industry is male dominated, always looking for results and not focusing on the journey. Women have the ability to make wine more relatable, more approachable and easier to digest. Our patience will make wine relatable. I have a perfect example of a male client that only works with me because I took my time to understand his taste and also went through the process of educating him on wine appreciation. The female touch takes wine to the next level.
What changes do you hope to see in regard to women in the wine industry in the next five years?
I’m hoping to see more women winemakers, more women CEOs and boards of directors in large companies. We need women in power positions to speak and be the champions for the rest of us.
What message do you have for women entering the wine profession?
Wine business is tough and it’s male dominated. That said, a woman must come in with some force, know what she wants and learn to put it forth. This has a price to pay but you will also send a message that you know your work, your value and what you want. Work extra harder, know and do more than what you are being asked and always be aware of your environment and the changes taking place around you, as has been happening during this pandemic. Be aware that you have the power, you are good and nobody needs to vet you. Another element is to build a network of people around you, people that are good at what they do and care about you.
What does equality in the wine industry look like to you?
There’s no equality in wine; some of us are trying to achieve it. This is simply how I see it as a Kenyan girl who has struggled to survive in this industry.
In what ways would you say you are contributing to equality in wine?
I want all girls, especially those in Kenya, Africa and in the world, to know that they can beat the odds and succeed in this competitive industry. Africa has beautiful culinary culture that needs to be explored and modernized to feature on the world stage. We need more culinary ambassadors to showcase African cuisines and pair them with diverse wines.
What are some defining characteristics of a wonder woman of wine to you?
I am deeply passionate and it’s very important; passion is love and it will make one resilient and weather the storm. I am very original, innovative, odd, think outside the box and not everyone’s cup of tea. These attributes make me and my ideas stand out. I am the so-called freak that sat alone during lunch in high school, I was never invited to the cool outings and I’m still never invited because I was not a crowd pleaser. However, when someone needs a unique solution to a problem, I can help because I am a dare devil. People want to try things and will never dare and I’m good at daring because I have learned that there’s nothing to lose but more to gain.
What other women of wine do you admire and why?
Interesting question, I thought of this question long and hard. I do not have any, I am so odd, and I had no one to look up to for inspiration. As a result, I have created my own path. Throughout my wine journey, I have been so busy fighting to survive that I did not think to look up to someone else.