Hippos, and Pythons, and Hyenas…Oh My!

One day, the Great Rift Valley may be submerged in ocean water, but for now it is a geological masterpiece, home to some of the deepest and largest lakes in the world, birthplace of Lucy, and now where the Castel Group’s much anticipated wine will be made.

Castel's Vineyard in Ziway

Traveling to Ziway, 160 km south of Addis, we drove through greenhouse-lined roads before arriving at Castel’s vineyard.  For anyone who still doubts that grapes can be grown in Ethiopia, seeing these 120 hectares (nearly 300 acres) of row after row of vines should convert the non-believers.

Planting international varieties, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Chardonnay, Castel seeks to take advantage of the wide-open market where only one other local producer exists.  Overcoming challenges, reported to include run-ins with hippos, pythons, and hyenas, Castel started their first harvest in November and are set to release their first vintages in early spring of 2012.

Castel’s presence is important to our mutual efforts in revitalizing Ethiopia’s wine industry.  However, in order to build a truly sustainable industry in a developing country, we must also foster ownership among local people, so that they are not simply workers, but drivers of the industry.

Right now, there are only a handful of Ethiopians are knowledgeable about growing grapes and making wine.  The lack of in-country technical knowledge and skilled labor force are major challenges to the development of the industry.  SPARC will change that by working directly with farmers and building training programs that will help pass the knowledge on from generation to generation.

Lessons Learned

People often ask me why I’m doing this.  On one hand, there is the thrill of the challenge and recognition of the tremendous opportunity in Ethiopia, on the other is fear that this promising industry will do more harm than good in a country that cannot afford any setbacks.

South Africa’s $3 billion wine industry was built on the backs of countless, disenfranchised black South African workers.  The Human Rights Watch recently reported on the plight of South African workers in the fruit and wine industries; the accounts of squalid living conditions, unsafe working environments, and regular infringements on rights are maddening and heart-wrenching.

There are promising signs of change, as black South African winemakers are said to be on the rise and committed organizations, like our friends at ISAW who continue to do good work.

In Ethiopia, we have the unique opportunity to build an entire industry using ethical and sustainable practices from the ground up.

So, how did I choose this as my post-MBA path?  Well, I couldn’t find a job listing with that description.


It’s All About Who You Know

On my first Saturday in Addis, Amy and I ventured out for a little exploration of the city via minibus.  The journey, not quite as harrowing as I had imagined, led us to a charming little store, tucked away in between a couple of churches and a Swiss Café.

As I wandered through Salem’s Design Store, each scarf, basket, piece of jewelry that I picked up seemed to have its own unique story.

Intrigued, I excitedly began peppering Salem, the lovely owner, with questions.  She graciously sat down to coffee with us and we talked about various local cooperatives form which she sources her quality products.

Salem’s husband, Abraham, led a career in development and they have traveled the world, but both have retained a strong sense of loyalty to Ethiopia.

Abraham is originally from Adwa, a town farther north, where I was traveling to that very weekend and from where, according to Salem, “all the smart people come from.”  He also has refocused attention to his hometown and recently secured land to start a dairy farm.

The dairy farm just happens to be next to the only existing vineyard in Adwa, a vineyard that Biniyam consulted for and suggested that I visit!

Salem and Amy went off to discuss designing new linens for the guest house, which left me in the courtyard thinking about how this project has been brought to life by a series of connections.

From learning all there is to know about grapes and wine in Ethiopia to cozy accommodations to finding a link to Nicaragua, a SPARC network is emerging.

Biniyam and Tom at the Merti Vineyard

Grapes in Ethiopia

Biniyam came to SPARC, almost serendipitously.  You see, David R. was a prospective GBS student.  He had interests in social enterprise and previous work experience in Ethiopia, so was referred to Peter by the admissions office.  Peter introduced me to David, who then connected me to Ayele, an Ethiopian-American who researched building a winery in Ethiopia.  Ayele, helped connect me to many people, including Biniyam.

Biniyam, who has his finger on the pulse of this fledgling industry, has in turn, helped connect us to the local agricultural offices, farmers, all existing grape-growers, the wineries, and potential investors.

As it turns out, when the original research team visited DZARC, where Biniyam works, he just happened to be out of the office that day.  Missed connections are for another day.

Our Ethiopian Home

I also can’t say enough good things about the Cherokee Guest House, which also came about through a connection.  JT, who works for the Cherokee Investment Fund, was introduced to Peter during the feasibility study.  Peter then connected him to me.  I just happened to e-mail JT the week before I left for Ethiopia and he mentioned the guest house.  Amy, who is currently the house manager, then made the introduction to Salem, among many others.

Also, just a week before, David K. had introduced me to the Acumen Fund staff in East Africa, which includes Amon, who previously worked for Cherokee in Ethiopia.  Then, when having coffee with Daniel Gad of Omega Farms, who was in contact with the Emory team, I learned he also has close ties to Cherokee.

Nicaragua in Ethiopia

Lovely San Juan del Sur

In July, I held a fundraiser in DC.  Stephen Satterfield of ISAW was kind enough to invite some of his contacts.  Among them, Lisa and Spencer were the first to arrive.  Spencer’s wife used to be the ambassador to Nicaragua, where I serve on the board of Comunidad Connect, an NGO.  Lisa and Spencer then put me in touch with their friends, Stanley and Gloria, who are currently living and working in Addis and also previously lived in Nicaragua.  Stanley is the country director for the World Council of Credit Unions and is now helping me connect with other NGOs in Addis.

Besides being grateful for Stanley offering to make introductions for me, it’s nice finding people who share a love for Nicaragua, when we’re halfway across the world.

While on the one hand, I feel like my world is getting smaller, on the other – I’m excited that we’re building a strong and useful base of supporters.

Networking is one of those topics that I thought was part of business school fluff and just an excuse to throw a cocktail party, but any progress that I have been able to make is due to the meaningful connections made along the way.

Perhaps I should have taken those GBS Casino Nights a bit more seriously?

– Sandhya

P.S.  To honor my newfound appreciation for ‘networking,’ we’ll be hosting an Ethiopian wine tasting at the Cherokee house soon! 

Braving Hyenas in Harar

During the weekend of September 3, Tom traveled to Harar to evaluate the land that a private investor is considering for a vineyard.  Mr. Tsegaye is the father of one of my good friends and he has been very supportive of SPARC and our efforts. Here are Tom’s reactions to a potential vineyard in Harar…

Mulugeta Tsegaye sees the potential for producing quality wines in Ethiopia.  I flew to Harar, the ancient walled city in the eastern highlands, to meet with him.  Before we could check out the viticultural potential of the surrounding land, we had to pay our respects to Harar’s most famous inhabitant.  The locals call him Delman Sheikh, which is Amharic for Young Sheikh, but the rest of the world knows him as the hyena.

Harar is the only place in Ethiopia where hyenas aren’t dreaded, but rather they walk among men in the city at night.  Mulugeta, his friend, and his friend’s 6 year old daughter drove to the gate of the old city walls, a preferred haunt of the hyenas.  From under the shadows of immense Ficus tree, out came Delman Sheikh.  Hyenas are large animals – the size of a small bear.  The little girl and I both leapt in fright for refuge behind Mulugeta!

We drove out to the Erer Valley to the south of the city.  In much of Ethiopia, small changes in elevation make significant differences in the warmth of the climate and the amount of rainfall.  The Erer Valley sits lower than most of the other sites we have visited in Ethiopia, so it is relatively warm and dry.  We decided it would be better to find more suitable vineyard land in cooler climates at higher elevations outside the Erer Valley.

As a business man interested in expanding the Ethiopian wine industry, Mulugeta is not alone.  The land is available, the water is plentiful, and the beautiful highlands make the perfect setting for wine country.

– Tom

Note from Sandhya:  In 2009, the latent demand for quality wine in Harar and nearby Dire Dawa was valued at $4.19 million (US Dollars).  Some of the country’s best coffee is known for being grown in Harar, however, many farmers are favoring the more profitable chat (a leaf that is chewed as a stimulant).  Thus, while the growing conditions may be appropriate for grape-growing, farmers may be a bit harder to convince.  Harar/Dire Dawa seems to be better suited for private investors to establish small-scale vineyards and wineries to serve the local market and  regular flow of tourists.

Dire Dawa was also the first choice for Castel’s vineyard site, but they ultimately decided to take root in Ziway.

Day 2: Finding Love in Ethiopia (Part 2 of 2)

Merti Jeju Agricultural Development Office

We finally made it to our destination, the Agricultural Development Office for the Woreda (District) of Merti Jeju.

We were greeted by the staff and led to an office, brightened only by the sunlight.

Biniyam and I did our, now well-rehearsed, song and dance, of our Amharic-English presentation.

After a few clarifying questions, a young man in the corner, looked straight at me and said, “There is no need to look at other sites, our farmers are eager to try new crops and will want to work with you.”

Whoa, now.  We just met, I’m not sure if I’m ready to close the deal just yet.  How quickly, I realize that I’m not quite ready for this level of commitment.

We still have 4 sites to visit. What if they have something to offer that MJ can’t?

I explain that it is important that we visit all potential grape-growing areas to evaluate the growing conditions, farmer interest, land availability, and infrastructure.

As quality is critical to our mission and the success of this project, choosing a site is not something that can be done hastily.  We need to make as informed of a decision as possible.

Additionally, Biniyam, who I have tremendous respect for and has extensive knowledge of grape growing in Ethiopia, is not as smitten with MJ.  As he has worked with the state-owned farm and a private client in the area, he knows the challenges of the climate in MJ.

But, wine grapes have only been grown in the lowlands, where one concern is that the temperature is slightly too warm.  No one has tried the highlands, where it’s cooler.

Do we take the risk of investing in a new area in search of the highest quality, but may encounter unknown challenges?  Or do we grow in an area where we are familiar with the limitations and can anticipate potential issues?

For now, we’ll just have to take all these factors into consideration, while we finish our remaining visits.

I’m sorry, MJ, while I’m still captivated by your beauty, I think it’s best that I keep my options open for now.  I’ll be in touch…

– Sandhya

Day 2: Finding Love in Ethiopia (Part 1 of 2)

When I told my mother about my plan for working/living in Ethiopia, a solemn look came over her face.  After an eternity of silence, she simple shook her head and said, “Well, now what are we going to do about getting you married?”

Fret no more, Mom.  I found love in Ethiopia…with Merti Jeju.

Merti Jeju is a charming wonder hidden amongst the mountains, just south of Addis, adorned with babbling creeks and beautiful boulders.

After visiting Ethiopia’s state-owned farm, in the lowlands of Merti Jeju, where they grow everything from mango to corn to grapes, we ventured up the mountains in search of the local Agricultural Development Office. What we thought was going to be a 7 kilometer drive, turned into 30 kilometers up a mountain.

Pictures Don't Do My Love Justice

No complaints, here, as the emerald backdrop had me wanting to jump out of the car and belt out, “The hills are alive…”

Lucky for Biniyam and Tom, I restrained myself from doing my best Julie Andrews impression.

Mesmerized, I couldn’t help but think that these hillsides must be perfect for grapes…

  • The elevation is about 1000 meters higher than the state-owned farm below, making it about 10° cooler.
  •  The soil is rocky and fertile; there is a good amount of both sunshine and rainfall.
  •  There is plenty of available land and access to water.

And did I mention the ridiculously spectacular views, perfect for sitting on the back of our winery’s porch, sipping a glass of Ethiopia’s best Chenin Blanc?

I’m pretty sure pink, cartoon-like hearts came popping out of my eyes and Celine Dion was playing in the background.

Is this it?  Could this be Ethiopia’s Wine Country?

I sure was sold, but what about the farmers?

Come back tomorrow for part II, when my commitment issues arise…


Introducing Ato. Gebremanian

Sandhya Presenting to Farmers

Today, we met a community of growers in the Debre Zeit area.

Sandhya pitched the idea to them. When she finished with the basics (guaranteed market, social premium, technical viticultural support, etc.), she asked the growers about their questions and concerns.

Here were some of their responses:

“How long after planting the vine cuttings will we produce the first crop?”

“Can we plant other crops between the vine rows during the time before we harvest the first crop?”

“Will grape growing be profitable in this area?”

To understand their concerns, one must remember that the farmer is the ultimate high-rolling gambler. The farmer rolls the die against the odds of the weather, pestilence, markets, and so on. If the farmer’s children will have enough to go to school, the farmer must maximize the returns and mitigate the risks. Winegrowing in Ethiopia promises to do both. Not only are grapes a high-value added product, but the cultivation of an additional crop diversifies the grower’s risk, making the great gamble of agriculture safer for Ethiopian farmers.

The leader of the grower community, a man named Ato. Gebremaniam spoke on behalf of the group. Although I don’t

Ato. Gebremaniam

understand a word of Amharic, the Ethiopian lingua franca, is charisma was obvious. In fact, it was a good thing I don’t understand Amharic, because Ato. Gebremaniam probably could have convinced me of anything!

Sandhya, Biniyam and Sabla, who are our contacts at local agricultural offices, the growers, and I went out to walk the fields. The farmers primarily grow teff (the grain crop used for the delicious Ethiopian staple bread, injera) onions, and tomatoes. When we walked into the fourth and final field, a woman approached us from across the way.

Ato. Gebremaniam turned to Sandhya and I, and he said, “I would like you to meet the owner of this field. Please feel free to ask her about anything you inquire.”

Wait, what? Since when do you speak perfect English, Ato. Gebremaniam?

Meet Ato. Gebremaniam, the charming grower of Debre Zeit, who helped kick off our site selection trip with a promising start!

– Tom

Day 1: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop…For a Little Hurricane

On August 23, an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.8 rattled the East Coast.  Four days later, Hurricane Irene was barreling her way toward the DC metro area…and I was preparing to board a plane to Ethiopia.

Oh, no, Irene.  This is not the time for your nonsense.

After months of planning, talking to everyone who has ever heard of Ethiopia or looked at a bottle of wine, and successfully completing our first fundraising campaign, this little storm was not going to stop me from getting to Ethiopia.  I could not endure one more coffee meeting, drink, or skype chat to discuss the possibilities of this project…I was ready to get to Ethiopia and make this happen.

Lucky for Irene*, she delayed her foolishness long enough for our plane to get off the ground and we were on our way to Ethiopia.

On the plane, I met Tom, in person, for the very first time.  Tom is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of California at Davis who has been assisting SPARC on the viticulture/grape side of things and is accompanying me on this trip to help select an appropriate vineyard site.

We both sat, in a bit of awe that we were actually on our way.

Fourteen short hours later, we landed in Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  We swiftly received our visas, picked up our baggage, and were greeted by Amy, our guest house host, and Nigussu, our taxi driver, who led us to our cozy Ethiopian home.

Take that, Irene.

Home Sweet Home!

After getting settled at home, Amy invited us to have coffee with Susan, an American expat who works for the local International Community School.  Then, we had our first real Ethiopian dinner at Yeshi Buna, which was mighty tasty.

Everyone has made us feel so welcome on this first day that I barely feel like I’ve left home.

Over the next 10 days, while Tom is here, we will be visiting existing vineyards and potential new sites for our vineyards with Biniyam, our contact at the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Station.  We are excited to be able to travel to Merti Jeju, Ziway, Gouder, Debre Zeit, Harrar, and Axum.

Hopefully, two of these sites will become home to our future vineyard cooperatives.

We’ll be blogging and updating, as our internet access permits, so please come back to read more about our trip!

I’ll be right here, just hoping that a volcano doesn’t erupt in Ethiopia.  This girl can only take so many natural disasters in one week…

*I do not intend to make light of the impact that Irene had on the east coast and keep everyone who was affected in my thoughts (while I sip on my macchiato from the comfort of my porch in Ethiopia).

– Sandhya

Sidenote:  We are staying at a guest house run by Cherokee Gives Back (www.cherokeegivesback.org), an investment fund and foundation based in Raleigh, NC.  The house is amazing, and the staff wonderful.  We couldn’t ask for a better place to call home while in Ethiopia.  We will post pictures and more details, but if you are traveling to Ethiopia – I highly recommend checking them out!