Distell chief viticulturist Dirk Bosman

Distell imparts wine-growing expertise to Tanzanians to enhance local economy

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Distell is spearheading a viticultural initiative in Tanzania that should see wine farmers in the highlands of Dodoma double their crops within three to five years, says chief viticulturist Dirk Bosman, who is leading the project.

In association with its joint-venture partner Tanzania Distilleries Limited (TDL), the company is lending its expertise at vineyards already in production. Distell, which has a 35% stake in TDL, is also donating substantial cuttings of the Villard blanc cultivar, propagated at its dedicated nursery, Ernita, near Wellington. Once established as vineyards, these will become an additional and much-needed source for making both brandy and popular wines for the Tanzanian market.

TDL, a dominant player in Tanzania's wine and spirits market, operates two cellars with a combined capacity of 800 tons a year. Such limited production means much of its wine currently has to be imported from Distell in South Africa.

"The intention of the project is to increase the local content in TDL's wine and brandy ranges, transfer skills, build capacity and increase job opportunities in an otherwise marginalised rural area," says Bosman.

"Once the educational model and its execution have been refined, it may be possible to introduce similar initiatives to other sub-Saharan countries where there is a market for wines and in which Distell is involved." Distell owns The Winemasters, in Kenya, and also has a 31% stake in African Distillers in Zimbabwe.

Bosman is training Tanzanian farmers and extension officers in viticulture and low-tech vineyard management to improve the quality and yield of local vineyards and has begun a series of trial plantings at the Makutopora Research and Training Centre near Dodoma.

The country's vineyards, occupying about 150 hectares in and around Dodoma, are planted mostly to Makutopora, both red and white, as well as to small quantities of Chenin blanc, Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon.

There is some conjecture that Makutopora could be derived from the Italian variety Aleatico, brought to the country by European settlers during the course of the last century. "It is supposed to have mutated as a result of natural selection but there is still no conclusive proof as to its origins," says Bosman. Grown in sandy, loamy soils, it yields both good colour and quality for mainstream wines and brandies.

"Given the poverty and lack of access to technology, the vineyards are hand-farmed. There are few tractors, so even the soil preparation is undertaken manually. Almost all vineyards are dryland because of a lack of irrigation water. Virtually no chemicals are used. All these features give us a sound basis from which to work and to train farmers in maximising their output while limiting the impact on the environment.

"As this is a tropical area, farmers harvest twice a year, but this compromises both quality and yield. The February crop that ripens during the rainy season is generally affected by rot, mildew and other diseases associated with excessive humidity. The August harvest, on the other hand, comes during the drier season, when temperatures are cooler than some parts of Stellenbosch, fruit is able to ripen slowly with concentrated flavours, and quality and yields are favourable.

"A major part of our task will be to introduce appropriate pruning and trellising measures to ensure a single crop in August/September of a superior quality and output. The excellent results from our initial trial plantings have been immensely encouraging to growers and they are keen to follow the protocols we are proposing.

"We are confident that with further plantings and improved farming techniques, it will be possible for wine farming to become a meaningful contributor to Tanzania's agricultural GDP."

TDL produces several wines, as well as a brandy under the trademark Valeur, that it also exports internationally.


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