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.
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.
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.