Cellar to a Continent

Luanda and Lagos rather than London and Las Vegas is the new export message for SA wine. This in a wine survey for the Financial Mail, echoing my column last week on Angola as the fastest growing export destination for SA wine.

lagos Cellar to a Continent

Sheila runs a chain of Spaza shops in Malawi and once a month flies down to Johannesburg for a three day shop. From her base at the Holiday Inn opposite China City at Bruma Lake, she buys “groceries and what-what” from Trade Centre in Denver, Africa Cash & Carry in Crown Mines and Makro which are then trucked up to Lilongwe. She pays cash. Sheila is part of an informal distribution network that Duncan Bonnett, from Whitehouse & Associates, estimates accounts for 90% of retail sales in Central and West Africa.

Recently returned from Nigeria, Bonnett reports that Lagos has several traders’ markets, each double the size of Nasrec. Essentially informal wholesale operations, they supply consumer goods (including wine) to hotels, restaurants and retail shops. In some markets (e.g. the Congo) red tape, corruption and customs duties ensure that informal importation is often the only pipeline.

Landbouweekblad reports that the Turkish registered “chemical tanker” the Nazo-S is a frequent visitor to Cape Town harbor. Every three weeks, three million litres of wine is pumped into the belly of the vessel from 32 bulk tanker trucks lined up on the quay in an operation which takes four hours – and three days to unload in Luanda. Global Pact Distributors and Ciatti Co., a US wine and grape broker, are the middlemen and the Cape’s many Co-operative cellars supply. Around 20 million litres has been shipped over the past year.

Another entrepreneur supplies a forty foot container a day to Angola filled with 50 and 100ml sachets of brandy and vodka. These are sold by hawkers in Luanda from trays supported from straps around their necks, rather like ice creams and cigarettes were sold in cinemas in the sixties.

Oil and diamonds have fueled a boom in this city of five million. But not everyone lives on easy street: the Cartier emporium in the middle of town sits cheek by jowl to hovels full of squatters while mega-bling Hummers with 20 inch wheels roar around the streets. Streets in which beggars die of starvation as the rich dine out at around R800 for a pizza supper for four. To drink, Catembes, that traditional mixture of red wine and Coke which makes Angola a 60m litre a year market.

As former Portuguese colony, rotgut red was supplied by Portugal, the mother country at around $1 a litre, but increasingly, it is SA which delivers as the Euro/Rand exchange rate and transport considerations make the financial decisions.

Among corporates KWV, DGB and Distell, low cost brand volumes are up strongly. Tassenberg winemaker Michael Bucholz reports that historical production is around 12 million litres. A trio of northern neighbours (Mozambique, Namibia and Angola) accounts for around 20% of sales. While corporates may not be moving the volumes that quick-off-the-mark entrepreneurs are shifting, they deserve an award for opening up the market and introducing Anglophone Africa to SA wine.

A perfect storm of increased African consumption and Australian distress purchases (three weeks of 35 degree heat has resulted in a continent full of stuck ferments Down Under) has drained the SA spittoon and brought many a Co-op back from the financial brink.

Our northern neighbours have a yen for sweeter reds (hence the addition of Coke in Mozambique and Angola for Catembes) and there is a definite trend to production of sweeter reds, especially among Co-ops like Stellenbosch Hills. Winemaker PG Slabbert calls it “the Gauteng taste”, but Luanda would be closer to the mark. Residual sugars in his big volume red blend called Rouge are up and soon Coke may be surplus to requirements.

Bonnett notes that the many references to wine in the Bible make it more acceptable to God-fearing communities than spirits alcoholic. Another factor are the large African-origin communities in Europe. London is home to around 1½ million people of Nigerian origin and what is popular in London – Kanu wines from Stellenbosch – is equally popular in Lagos.

There are several barriers to Africa becoming an even bigger market. Apart from the obvious one of potential consumer boycotts brought on by recent shameful xenophobic eruptions which will also deter smaller traders like Sheila, Bonnett identifies an arrogant “Big Brother” attitude and distrust that sees SA producers insist on upfront payment for stock to Nigeria’s traders’ markets while Chilean producers extend 90 day credit. Which could explain why this South American vinous giant sells far more wine in India than SA does – Mahatma Gandhi connections and largest Indian ex-pat community outside the subcontinent, notwithstanding.

But never ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence. The SA Wine Industry Information and Systems website divides the world up into Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australasia so while the East gets two bites of the Durian, there is no space at the table for Africa. Cleopatra, who invented Champagne (serving it to Julius Caesar two millennia ago) would despair. In similar vein, while Wines of SA, the exporters association, has gorgeous representatives galore in Europe and North America, Africa remains the Dark Continent.

While our Ghanaian brothers and sisters, still impassioned by the Pan-African dream of Kwame Nkrumah, retain a desire to drink a world class African wine, until SA marketers change their destinations from Amsterdam and Atlanta to Accra and Abidjan, they’ll have to make do with whatever Sheila can source at Makro.