“I lost my 16-month-old daughter when I was living and working in South Africa. My whole world crashed, and I came back home to Kenya to try and rebuild my life,” says Wanjiru Mureithi.
“I was open to trying new things and along the way, I turned my love for wine into a business.”
She founded Winenjiru Ltd, a company that deals with educating, training, consulting and doing events around all things wine. Wanjiru, 43, formed her company in 2013, originally with the intention to distribute wine in Kenya.
The business was capital intensive, however, and needed intricate knowledge of the trade and craft, which Wanjiru didn’t have at the time.
“I’d been working for 10 years for a youth fund in South Africa aimed at promoting young entrepreneurs. I knew business, but not wine,” says Wanjiru.
“The only reason I thought of going into wine was because, unlike in South Africa where wine was readily available at all price points, it’s more of an exclusive indulgence in Kenya.”
In the healing process after her relocation, Wanjiru made frequent trips to South Africa, where her brother lived. During those trips, she’d stock up on wine to bring back to Kenya.
“My stock wouldn’t last, though, because my friends would come to my house and drink it. I eventually started selling bottles to them. That’s when I got the idea to start my company, Winenjiru.”
Wanjiru decided to enrol for a course, Diploma in Wine Business Management, at the University of Cape Town, one of South Africa’s leading institutions.
“I knew almost nothing about wine, except as a consumer. I was hoping to gain this knowledge through this course, but I discovered it was actually targeted at wine professionals who wanted to gain business acumen.
“It was daunting to sit in class and hear terminologies that everyone else considered basic knowledge. Once or twice I thought of quitting, but I was the only foreigner there and I felt I represented a minority I couldn’t let down.”
Taking the leap
Wanjiru stayed in the class, which paid off because after hours, she would ask her more experienced classmates about wine. “One classmate in particular really went out of his way to help me understand the industry. He was working at Asara, a wine estate in South Africa. He took me to one of their wineries where I got to walk the grounds and visit the cellars,” she recounts.
“These wine cellars had chandeliers on the roof, that’s how dazzling this place was. But the most amazing experience was tasting wine direct from the barrel. I came to find out later in my career how rare it is to be given such access to a winery.” In early 2015, while still in South Africa, Wanjiru, even more intrigued by the wine industry, enrolled in a different course run by UK-based Wines and Spirits Education Trust (WSET).
“This certified course taught the details of wines from all over the world. We learned about grape varieties, wine regions, storage, blends, climates and so on. We were being groomed to become sommeliers, wine connoisseurs.”
Towards the end of her training, Wanjiru met the Africa market manager of Wines of South Africa (WOSA).
As the official marketing arm of South African wines, they held trade shows around the world, and had exhibitions in Uganda but none in Kenya.
“I wrote him an email, expressing my interest in becoming their representative in Kenya. I would get to organise their events and work directly with South African wine companies looking to expand into the Kenyan market. I loved the idea.”
It took several months before Wanjiru’s proposal was accepted. Finally, in November 2015, WOSA came to Kenya for a trade show, with Wanjiru organising the event.
“I had attended one of the biggest wine shows held in Cape Town earlier that year, and was mesmerised by how many producers showed up from South Africa and the world. The show lasted three days. When it dawned on me that I was expected to do something similar, of course at a smaller scale, in Kenya, I’ll be honest, I panicked.”
But she pulled it off. The trade show took place at Crowne Plaza and was attended by 20 wine producers from South Africa, showcasing 400 wines to 200 stakeholders in Kenya. They included food and beverage managers from top-end hotels, wine distributors and retailers, media personalities and other consumers.
“It was a great success, especially as we roped in partnerships from South African Airlines and the South African High Commission,” Wanjiru says.
“This event launched me into the wine space in Kenya. Before that, I’d approach people and tell them I represented Wines of South Africa and some would write to the company to confirm my ‘allegations.’ Now, I walk into a room or make a phone call and they know who I am.”
Though she’s done several other events for WOSA in the last three years, Wanjiru has diversified her business to incorporate Kenyan companies interested in the wine space.
“Our business has three major pillars. We train individuals and staff members of establishments that want to give their customers better service, like wine shops or restaurants; we consult for companies looking to get into the wine business; and we do events to educate and promote practitioners and consumers.”
A typical event will attract anywhere between 20 and 200 people, depending on the objective. Winenjiru takes a percentage of the total budget as a management fee for events it organises. The firm charges approximately Sh4,000 per person for uncertified training on wine and Sh25,000 to Sh57,500 (excluding VAT) for certified courses from WSET.
“People ask me if there’s enough interest in wine in Kenya to justify building a business around it. The very reason I got into wine was because I felt there was potential that wasn’t being tapped. Winenjiru is doing that. One of our flagship events for WOSA is a sommelier competition held every three years,” Wanjiru says.
“Our first one was in 2016, and the winner, Geoffrey Kariuki, got to go to South Africa for the international competition, which attracted sommeliers from the US, UK, Switzerland, Germany and other wine countries. He was the only African entrant.”
Winenjiru held its second competition yesterday, and will be crowning the winner tomorrow. The participants in 2016 included sommeliers from renowned establishments like Serena Hotels and Villa Rosa Kempinski, and distributorships like Casks and Barrels, and The Wine Shop.
“The knowledge and appreciation of wine is changing in Kenya. Wine is about having an experience, and experiences become a lifestyle, but you can’t experience well what you don’t understand. We want to change that,” says Wanjiru.
“One of our most successful events was a coffee and wine evening, where participants appreciated the similarities between good coffee and good wine. It’s all about aromas, flavours and the fulfilment of being with others who enjoy the same things you do.”
Wanjiru hopes to build a thriving ecosystem of food and wine in Kenya.
One of her dreams is to form a sommelier association to help raise the standards of wine service and, in turn, the expectation from consumers.
“I dream of wine becoming a vibrant industry in this country, from production, sales, distribution and service to other creative aspects, like writing and blogging. There’s room to do so much in this country. We will make it happen.”
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