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Interview with Ryan – an American expat living in South Africa

Updated 26 Feb 2021

Ryan grew up in San Diego, California and later lived in the Silicon Valley Bay Area for 15 years before moving to Johannesburg in 2016 with his South African wife, Quinne. He’s a micro brewer and loves living in sunny South Africa. They have two young girls, and they enjoy travelling around South Africa and making the most of the country’s beautiful weather by spending plenty of time outdoors. Be sure to follow Ryan at @nakedfacebrewing and check out his websites and

For more on expat life here, see our Expat Arrivals essential guides, Moving to South Africa and Moving to Johannesburg.

About RyanRyan South Africa

Q: Where are you originally from?
A: Born in San Diego, California

Q: Where are you currently living?
A: Johannesburg, South Africa

Q: When did you move here?
A: July 2016

Q: Is this your first expat experience?
A: Yes

Q: Why did you move?
A: My wife is from South Africa and she missed her friends and family. She also had a great work opportunity here. I love a new adventure and was able to work in my passion (beer brewing) after moving.

Living in Johannesburg

Q: What do you enjoy most about Johannesburg? How would you rate the quality of life compared to San Diego?
A: I love the standard of living. The people are great. The city has amazing diversity. Johannesburg is also close to many beautiful parts of South Africa for day and weekend trips. My wife is very happy being with her friends and family and working in her passion.

The quality of life is better in some ways: it’s cheaper; we’re able to afford domestic help and live in a beautiful home. That said, security is something to get used to. I get frustrated with the lack of getting to know your neighbours because of the increased security. And I miss living close to the beach in San Diego.

Q: What do you do?
A: I own a craft brewery called Naked Face Brewing.

Q: How did you get into the brewing business? And how does South Africa’s brewing culture compare with America’s?
A: When I first visited my wife when we were dating 17 years ago, I noticed there wasn’t a craft beer culture in South Africa. I decided I wanted to open a brewery here at some point, so I started homebrewing in the US. When we first moved here, I worked with Africa Hops, a business that imports raw materials for the craft beer industry. I was able to meet a lot of brewers by selling them hops, malt and yeast. After a couple of years, I was able to buy a brewing system and start my own label.

The brewing culture is much different than in the US. In the US, craft beer accounts for 30 percent of beer sales, even more in San Diego County. In South Africa, craft beer accounts for less than 2 percent of beer sales. Many South Africans are just used to drinking domestic lager and don’t branch out into other beer flavours. There is also less buying power in South Africa to pay for craft beer.

Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home?
A: Biggest negative experiences have been whenever you need to deal with government. The visa process has been a real challenge. I opened a tap room, and it took over eight months to receive my liquor license. Over the lockdown period with the pandemic there have been multiple booze bans making it extremely challenging for my business.

I also miss my friends and family from home. The extreme time change can make it a challenge to keep in touch. I miss the beach and I miss how reliable infrastructure is in the US. It can be a challenge to find certain products here compared to the US.

Q: How do you rate the standard of accommodation in the city? Did you buy or are you renting, and what would you advise?
A: The standard of housing in Johannesburg is very high. We are currently renting the biggest house I have ever lived in, with a beautiful garden and swimming pool. We also have someone living in a cottage on our property who helps watch the kids and helps with the housework.

Q: Any areas or suburbs in Joburg you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: We really enjoy the suburbs of Randburg. We live in Blairgowrie and have many friends living in Linden. It's close to both Sandton and the city centre.

Q: Do you ever travel outside of the city? Where do you usually go, and what would you recommend?
A: We love to travel around South Africa. We love to camp and often do so at Mountain Sanctuary in Magaliesburg and at Manyane near Pilansenberg game park. We have family that owns property in Bonnievale in the Robertson valley in the Western Cape. It’s a beautiful property featuring an olive farm in the wine country. We also visit Franschhoek often, the culinary capital of South Africa with beautiful wine farms.

Meeting people and making friends

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in SA?
A: I have found the locals have a fondness for Americans. I have only noticed discrimination of foreigners from other African countries. I have not personally experienced any discrimination.

Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: I found it very easy to meet new people. My wife is from here and has an extensive group of family and friends in South Africa.

I've also met many friends through my work in the homebrew community and craft beer industry.

Working in Johannesburg

Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: The work permit and visa process has been EXTREMELY challenging. We started out by using an immigration service which gave us bad advice. The visa processing service in South Africa is very slow and has no transparency when your application is being processed. I have been applying myself now since I got to know the system from dealing with it so often. But I’m still in the process after five years of renewing my work permit and I still need to get permanent residency even though my wife is a South African citizen.

Q: What is the economic climate in Joburg like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: The economic climate is challenging. There is a huge portion of the population that has relatively low discretionary spending power. Covid has made business incredibly challenging all over the globe but particularly tough for the alcohol industry in South Africa.

From what I hear, the best way to get a job is to have an offer before moving to South Africa. The banking and cellular industries are large here so if you work in those fields it may be easier to get a job offer.

I find local friends and family have been the most useful resource in finding a job. It is much smaller here and it feels like everyone has a connection.

Q: How does the work culture differ from home? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in SA? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: The work culture is more relaxed than in America. There are more holidays, and the country basically shuts down over the Christmas period. There are fewer suppliers and many products must be imported.

Many expats are able to see a gap in the market in products that don’t exist here yet and start their own business to fill that gap. There are many opportunities for very entrepreneurial-minded people.

There are many cultures in South Africa and people speak many different languages. Even though most people speak English, it’s often not their first language so communication can be a challenge sometimes. You have to be careful when hiring people as the government has very strict employee policies and it can be difficult to replace an employee that is not performing their job to expectations. Whenever you need any licensing from government for an industry, expect lengthy delays.

Family and children

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for them during the move?
A: The children have settled in very easily. The biggest challenge with the move was that their mother started working full time and they had more time with Dad. In the US, my wife was a stay-at-home mom.

And of course they missed some of their family and friends from the US.

Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Joburg?
A: We love to hike in some of the city's beautiful parks. We enjoy going to the Johannesburg Zoo. Going to the cinema was also a favourite pastime before Covid hit. The bird park at Monte Casino is great and we can’t wait to go to Gold Reef city theme park once things are back to normal. There are many great family-friendly restaurants that have play areas for the children and minders to watch them so you can have a peaceful meal with adult friends while the kids have a great time. Some examples are Bombanani, Papachinos and the Spur restaurants.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: The government schools really vary depending on the area you live in. There are some government schools that are still taught primarily in Afrikaans. We found that the class sizes at the government school were too big for our first child, so we moved both girls to a small Montessori private school. It costs more but is worth it for the small class size and it's close to home so we are able to walk to school and back. My girls absolutely love the school, as do we. It is called The Willows in Bordeaux neighbourhood and runs up to high school.

Final thoughts

Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Joburg?
A: Joburg is a big sprawling city so the best thing to do is make friends with a local who can show you some of the amazing little gems of the city. People are very friendly and will often invite you to their house for a braai (BBQ), and you should definitely take them up on it. It is one of my favourite things about the South African people’s culture. Take advantage of the amazing weather and do as many of the great outdoor activities that are available.

If you move to Joburg, hit me up and I will show you around.

►Interviewed February 2021

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