When one talks about grapes, many people most likely envision them (grapes) in Catholic Church compound or garden. Besides, for many, growing grapes is still considered as an activity for nuns in some convent somewhere in the countryside. However, one businessman cum farmer in Huye District is out to change that perception held by many people in the district and across the country generally.
Theogene Ntampaka said though growing grapes is “a highly-productive business” it has been neglected by farmers and government agencies in charge of agriculture and one can hardly find them in any farms across the country. He said he was inspired to venture into growing of grape by the sheer potential of the crop and need to improve his livelihood.
“Grapes can thrive for decades when planted in the right place, with the right climatic conditions, providing a farmer with a sustainable source of money,” Ntampaka explained.
He added that he also grows grapes to show others that the country’s soil can produce every kind of crops if farmers have a will and are ready to take risks. The model farmer grows European red grapes (Vitis Vinifera) in Sovu industrial zone, Huye District and reaps millions from grape, juice, and vine sales.
How Ntampaka started growing red grapes
About four years ago, Ntampaka used to be a regular buyer of grapes from a Sovu convent.
The inquisitive businessman later learnt that the nuns at the convent had only six grapes, and that the vines could last for 40 years.
When he did the maths, he found that this could be a life-changing venture through which he could save and earn more money as a commercial grape farmer. That was his turning point and start of a journey into growing grapes.
“When that nuns explained to me how they produce over 600 kilogrammes of grapes per harvest, it dawn on me that could make a living from such an income-generating project,” he said.
So in 2013, Ntampaka secured 1,000 free grape seedlings from the convent which planted on his two and a half hectares farm in Huye.
Ntampaka had previously been engaged in general trade, real estate development and running a family hotel - Faucon Hotel.
He has since established another farm where he planted 1,600 plants. The entrepreneur said he used Rwf1 million as initial capital to kick-start the project.
He used the money to put up the required facilities and materials like sand, poles and metal railings to support grape vanes.
Ntampaka said that, with proper care, grapes do well in sunny conditions with good air circulation and well-drained soils, among others.
The farmer said besides improving his income, he was inspired to venture into grape growing to disapprove those who considered grape growing as a job of lazy people.
“So it was also some sort of an act of defiance,” he noted.
Reaping big from grapes
Ntampaka said he currently makes wine and juice from grapes. One can get the first harvest after two years but the ‘main’ yield comes after about four to five years.
“Recently, I harvested three tonnes of grapes from which I earned handsomely. Grapes give you good as they produce bushels that contain multiple fruits,” he said. The model farmers added that he has so far harvested more than 10 times since he started the project.
“Every year, you harvest up to three times,” he said, adding that one kilogramme of grapes costs at least Rwf14,000.
Ntampaka said he has made some Rwf3 million from homemade juice sales. The juice is produced by a cottage industry in Huye town. The farmer cum agro-processor has for the past two years stocked red wine to mature and eventually sale it off.
“I have not yet started selling red wine because I want it to get better and tasty. Remember, when red wine is kept for long, it tastes better, and the better the taste, the more the money one earns,” he explained.
He said that he plans to stock up to 2,000 bottles of red wine before he can start selling the beverage.
Targeting local market
Ntampaka said there are few people engaged in growing grape, a situation he wants to take full advantage of and maximise production and profits.
He said that he will focus on the local market, arguing that entering regional and international markets before establishing a strong presence in the country does not impact farmers, traders and other stakeholders along the value chain.
Besides, people have to understand that Rwanda’s soils can support different types of crops, including grapes.
“This way, we increase production and support efforts geared at value addition and Made-in-Rwanda products,” he said.
The farmer sells his products (ripe grapes and juice) to different buyers countrywide in shops, supermarkets and to individual buyers.
Ntampaka said that one of the challenges is lack of packaging materials locally, especially for wine.
He said a container of wine bottles costs Rwf20 million, which is expensive. This, he added, has affected the morale of farmers and discouraged new investors from joined the sector.
Ntampaka said there is also lack of sensitisation about the importance of grape growing, which he said explains that low volumes produced in the country.
“Many farmers don’t know how to grow grapes and most still consider it as a foreign activity for countries in Europe and America,” Ntampaka said.
He called on responsible government institutions to sensitise farmers on the benefits of growing grapes as well as provide extension services and technical support to help develop agriculture sector generally.
He added that farmers need guidance on proper crop husbandry practices to ensure good care for the crop. He said this is essential for grapes to yield a good harvest.
“Grapes need a lot of attention and daily care for one to earn good money. For instance, you have to prune them each season to be assured of a better crop next harvest, added the entrepreneur.
Ntampaka advised farmers to be passionate about their work, adding that growing grapes needs constant sacrifice and dedication for a farmer to reap from their sweat.
He said it is challenging for a farmer to care for the crop and wait for two years to start harvesting.
“However, you can earn a lot of money from grapes as they are highly productive as a single plant produces many vines,” Ntampaka said.
He urged to be innovative and ‘risk takers’ saying that farmers should have a spirit of ‘trying to fail, don’t fail to try’.