News and knowhow for farmers

Farming venture in Naivasha proves that Kenya can produce Africa’s finest wine

James Farquharson was routinely going through his e-mail when a message from a man named Pius Ngugi dropped in. “Do you want to make wine in Kenya?” read the subject line. That was in 2007 and at the time, Farquharson was in charge of Rosette production at Boschendal, one of the largest wineries in South Africa. He was in a comfort zone, but the invitation to explore new opportunities was irresistible.
The rest of the e-mail explained how Ngugi had established a vineyard at his expansive Morendat farm, in Naivasha, a town to the West of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, and was looking at prospects of turning it commercial. He (Ngugi) had until then not managed to get any meaningful harvest from the vineyard to feed the roaring winery he had set up in 1993.
Frustrated by the level of progress, Ngugi had linked with agencies in South Africa, seeking someone who had both the know-how and experience needed to give the project the oomph it needed.
“He was looking for a credible viticulturist (wine-production specialist), who was willing to take up a full-time managerial position at the farm, and that is how he came to hear of me,” said Farquharson.
After further briefing (mainly over email), Ngugi flew Farquharson in for an assessment session and even though “things were not well taken care of”, Farquharson confesses that he immediately saw potential in the project.
“The fact that there was some crop growing on the farm confirmed that there was hope for the project.” He took the job and in early 2008 relocated to Kenya.
The Morendat farm currently produces more than 430 tonnes of fruit per harvest, which yields at least 40,000 bottles of wine. This is a long way from the 10,000 bottles produced in 2006. So, what changes were effected to push the struggling venture into profitability?
At the farm, Farquharson’s primary target was to get consistency in yields. To achieve this, he first had to increase the coverage of the vineyard from 26 to 48 acres. During this phase, they uprooted some of the old vines leaving them with only 12 acres of salvageable crop. They then planted 36 acres with 20,000 fresh root stocks sourced from South Africa at cost of KSh2.4 million ($24,000).
Next, a proper irrigation system was set up. This would help regulate the amount of water fed to the vines, hence conditioning the harvest time to fit a desirable production cycle. Initially, the workers at the vineyard had to water individual plants using hose pipes. This turned out to be both time-consuming and labour-intensive as they could only cover 2-3 acres per day. Under Farquharson’s instruction, a drip irrigation system was set up at a cost of KSh11 million ($110,000). The results of these changes were immediately seen with the harvest per acre increasing to 9 tonnes, up from 1.5 tonnes.
With the farm resuscitated, the next step in the plan was to get the winery to operate at optimum levels. One shortfall that Farquharson identified, was that his predecessors were trying to make wine under unsuitably high temperatures. He recommended that a cooling system be set up and even though this set them back some KSh2 million ($200,000). An in-house Quality and Assurance laboratory was established to ensure that the product leaving the company was of internationally-competitive standards.
The marketing end also had to undergo some changes. Farquharson and the other stakeholders sat at a meeting in which the first order of business was to come up with a suitable name for the product, hitherto known as Santa Rosalia. Various suggestions were raised and after an elimination process, they were left with two contenders, Omurogi (proposed by Farquharson) and Leleshwa. Omurogi, in most Bantu dialects denotes an evil person. It was struck out.
Contrary to common belief, the wine production process is simple and straightforward. Once the grapes are ready for picking, they are placed in 20Kg picking cases and transported to the winery at the back of a trailer. Here, they are dropped into a crusher-distemmer, a machine which hits the grapes of the stems and mashes the fruit. Next, the mash containing the skins, the pulp and the seeds is fed into the press, where it is compressed releasing all the juice onto a collection tray before it is pumped out. Rift Valley Winery’s press has a maximum capacity of 20 tonnes and a minimum of 6 tonnes. The juice collected from the press is allowed to sediment, filtered and then yeast is added into it to encourage fermentation. It is then let to sit under regulated cooling for five months before it is bottled.
Farquharson’s first harvest at Morendat came in 2009 and it yielded 20,000 bottles of wine. By 2014, they were making two harvests a year, yielding 80,000 bottles. According to projections, 150,000 bottles were expected from the 2015 harvest. “It has been a long-term investment, that started as a hobby but has now been commercialized,” said Mbugua Ngugi, the managing director of the Kenya Nut Company, the parent under which Rift Valley Winery operates.
The success stems from the fact that Rift Valley Winery delivers a product that is of exceptional quality at an affordable price.
A bottle of Leleshwa Sauvignon Blanc retails at KSh550 ($5.5) and Merlot-Shiraz for KSh595 ($6).
Because they do not have to contend with the 25% import tax imposed on the other products in their competition, they can sustainably maintain these low prices.
“If the government reduces the duty on imported wine, then we may be in trouble,” said Farquharson.
Currently, most of the sales are made in Kenya, particularly in tourist resorts and hotels. However, both Mbugua and Farquharson agree that for the business to make an impact, they need to develop ways of reaching the average Kenyan consumer. The integration of the East African community has also been regarded as an open call for business expansion. The company’s short-term goal is to reach a processing minimum of 3000 tonnes of fruit (approx. 3 million bottles) per harvest.
The greatest challenge the business faces is erratic weather conditions. Wine production requires periods of dry weather, where the crops are starved to allow the fruit to accumulate enough sugar. Unfortunately in Kenya, there is no consistency in weather patterns is the case with the temperate climates of South Africa and Europe. This, therefore, calls for extra effort on the part of the farmer, to ensure that he comes up with a workable cycle.
For instance, when heavy rains fall as the crop is being starved, the team is forced to prematurely harvest it and set up a new cycle.
Today the Morendat operation is led by two ladies, Emma Nderitu and  Christine Kasimu, who both credit Farquharson for the great knowledge they have about wine production. Emma is in charge of the winery while Christine works serves as the head viticulturist. Farquharson is now the Production Manager at Mara Farming Ltd.   

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