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.

What a Difference a Year Makes

A Message from our Founding Board Member

Peter Roberts, Associate Professor of Organization and Management at Goizueta Business School, led the feasibility study that has informed SPARC’s Ethiopian Wine Project. Professor Roberts brings significant research experience in wine economics, entrepreneurship, and social enterprise to his role as SPARC’s founding board member.

Professor Roberts in Ethiopia

About this time in 2010, I met with a group of students to begin planning a research project that would assess the possibility of developing a high-quality wine industry that could help combat poverty within Ethiopia. As the research process unfolded, the potential became (in my mind) greater and greater. After visiting Ethiopia and meeting many of its wonderful citizens, the importance of the project became (again in my mind) greater and greater. By the time we released our report in November of 2010, it seemed obvious to me that a project that would allow collectives of Ethiopian farmers to capitalize (both culturally and economically) on the potential inherent in their land was well worth the effort.

It also became obvious that this important initiative was not going to happen on its own. This is why I am proud to be associated with Sandhya’s new organization – SPARC Development. In just a few short months, she has made the required contacts and is securing the required commitments to build the necessary partnerships between “New World” and Ethiopian organizations. Here, I am referring to the folks from UC Davis and Cornell University on the one hand, and from the Debre Zeit Agricultural Research Center in Ethiopia on the other.

This September, these individuals and organizations will be gathering all of the viticultural and local institutional data they need to make informed decisions about where our initial farmer-led vineyard cooperatives should be located, and which grapes should be planted. These data will also form the basis of the careful work that will follow in order to ensure that our farmer partners are well supported with programs that will set them up to become knowledge leaders in what is poised to be a very attractive agricultural-based industry for Ethiopia.

Who would have thought that so much could happen in such a short time? Congratulations to Sandhya and the rest of her SPARC Development team. You all are proving that SPARC Development is a young social enterprise worth watching (and worth supporting)!

- Peter Roberts

Visit www.indiegogo.com/SPARCdev to help us raise $10,000 and send our team to Ethiopia!

September in Ethiopia

After months of research, Skype chats, and numerous coffee meetings, we have identified potential sites and partners in Ethiopia and are ready to move into action!

A critical next step to moving our plan to establish a poverty-fighting, high-quality wine industry in Ethiopia into implementation is to conduct a follow up assessment and site selection trip.

In September, Tom, our viticulture consultant from UC Davis, and I plan to travel to Ethiopia to select a site, interview farmers, and determine what resources need to be secured before we can begin land preparation, start planting vines and design the training programs.

Our goal is to collect all the necessary information to devise a comprehensive, long-term plan that will then allow us to target major funders and potential social impact investors.  In order to do that, we need your help!

Goal:  $10,000

We’ve launched our first fundraising campaign to raise $10,000.  While Tom and I are excited to be doing this work on a volunteer-basis, plane tickets to Ethiopia are mighty expensive and we would appreciate your support in helping with our travel expenses.

If you’re in Atlanta, we’d like to celebrate our work with our donors at the Official Launch Party on June 10.  We are very lucky to have our friends at High Road Ice Cream, Steady Hand Pour House, Sugar-Coated Radical, and Worthwhile Wine Company all in one place, providing samples of their amazing ice cream, chocolates, coffee, and wine.  Also, have a chance to win prizes, enter a wine auction, and enjoy music and dance performances all night long.

We’re working on ideas for those of you in other cities, so stay tuned…or let us know if you’re interested in hosting a SPARCdev launch party in your city!

To donate or for more details on our fundraising efforts, please visit www.indiegogo.com/SPARCdev.

SPARC Development…fighting poverty with wine!

Welcome to SPARC Development’s blog!  We look forward to sharing, with you, our journey to establish a high-quality, poverty-fighting wine industry in Ethiopia!

“Poverty-fighting wine industry??” you say.  Confused?

Don’t worry, most people react the same way.  Let me give you some background.

The History

This project began when Stephen Satterfield, the co-founder of International Society for Africans in Wine (ISAW), read an article about winemaking in Ethiopia. Curious about the possibility of a successful wine industry in Ethiopia, Stephen shared this information with Professor Peter Roberts at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School (GBS). As a wine economist and professor of social enterprise, Roberts was naturally intrigued and formed a team of business school students who spent a semester researching the feasibility of establishing a wine industry that was both of high-quality and focused on alleviating poverty.

In the November 2010, the research team released the results of their study.  The team concluded that in addition to the government and private sector interest, the latent market demand, appropriate growing conditions, and general economic environment create a landscape where a high-quality wine industry can not only exist, but flourish in Ethiopia.  With coordinated efforts and targeted external support, Ethiopian farmers can potentially quadruple their earnings within six years of starting to grow grapes.

Yes, quadruple…that’s 4 times the amount that farmers could earn versus planting other crops from just a ¼ hectare plot!

The only impediments that exist to increasing the earning potential of Ethiopian farmers and introducing new, high-quality wines to the world are (1) limited financing (2) lack of industry knowledge (3) difficulties with market access.

Enter SPARC Development

Upon hearing the team’s findings and after a few conversations with Professor Roberts, it became more and more evident that the resources needed to overcome the impediments mentioned above are readily available in the US and in Africa.

Why on Earth would we not try to match those resources with this promising opportunity in Ethiopia?

Furthermore, with the rise of social enterprise programs in business schools, how often to other similar ideas that have the potential to address global poverty go overlooked and not acted upon?

With 2.5 billion of the world’s population still living on less than $2 a day, that’s simply unacceptable.

Thus, SPARC Development was born with the intent to build a network of financial, human, and market resources that will be matched with market-based opportunities to alleviate poverty across the world.

And what could be a more exciting first project than establish a high-quality, poverty-fighting wine industry in Ethiopia?  So, here we are…a group comprised of business school graduates (well, almost), a professor, viticulturists, and winemaking experts dedicated to transforming what was just an idea into reality.  We’re kind of like a global matchmaker for alleviating poverty across the world.

Stay tuned to learn more about SPARC’s grand plan to fight poverty with wine in Ethiopia…trust me, it’s a good one! - Sandhya