September 8, 2009 / 10:12 AM / in 8 years

South Africa's black winemakers facing big hurdles

SOWETO, South Africa (Reuters Life!) - Black South African winemakers are finding it more difficult to break into the traditional white market despite wine’s growing popularity in townships.

This month, South Africa’s largest black township Soweto held its annual Wine Festival, where despite growing attendance figures, the number of black exhibitors has fallen sharply.

Black winemakers face numerous obstacles, among them having to compete with brands that have been in existence for decades.

“We are operating in an environment with long-established networks and it’s not easy for new players to break into those,” said Nondumiso Pikashe, who co-owns Ses‘fikile Wines with two other black women.

Pikashe cited infrastructure, capital and distribution as some of the biggest challenges faced by black winemakers.

Wines made by Ses‘fikile, which means “we are here” in Zulu, are distributed mostly in the United Kingdom and on a very small scale in South Africa due to the distribution hurdle faced by black wine makers in the country.

The number of black winemakers on show in Soweto has dropped by 25 percent since the first wine festival was held four years ago.

“We had 12 black exhibitors in 2005 and this year we have only eight,” said Cape Wine Academy managing director and festival co-convener Marylin Cooper.

The festival was started to cultivate a new breed of wine connoisseurs and to serve as a testing ground for South Africa’s black wine market.

Around 5,000 people attended this year compared to 1,500 in 2005. Most wine lovers who attended the festival were black, but many white South Africans made their way to Soweto, a township largely known as the hotbed of the struggle against apartheid.

DEEP POCKETS

Mnikelo Mangciphu, festival organizer and owner of Soweto wine emporium Morara Wines, says a lack of funds prevented many black winemakers from making wine.

“You’ve got to have deep pockets to be able to sustain your marketing plans,” said Mangciphu.

Cooper said the global financial crisis also contributed to a decline in the number of black-owned wineries.

“When recession strikes, it doesn’t hit the big boys. They’ve already got established brands and established markets. The (black-owned) farms have been particularly hit whilst trying to create brands, especially in the current economic climate.”

Several black businessmen have made investments in wine farms in the wine-growing region of the Western Cape.

Tokyo Sexwale, one of the country’s top businessmen and now housing minister in President Jacob Zuma’s government, owns several Western Cape wine estates.

There have been a number of initiatives to get workers on wine farms involved in making wine.

One of the most successful is the Thandi brand, where 55 percent of the shareholding is held by farm workers, who are either black or of mixed-race descent.

Thandi is a remarkable story in a mainly white industry which grew on the back of black labor, with workers being paid in alcohol to make up for meager wages.

And wine has started to make inroads into black areas.

One of the aims when the festival was first launched was “to demystify the perceptions around wine,” Mangciphu said.

“When I grew up, people used to call anything that is not a beer or spirit, wine. The objective has been achieved because people are now able to tell the different varieties of wine.”

Writing by Marius Bosch; Editing by Steve Addison

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