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Focus on ‘people, place and prosperity’ vital to South Africa recovery, says WoSA CEO

Could the return of the CapeWine trade fair, set against a backdrop of Covid-19 challenges and economic instability, mean light at the end of the tunnel for South Africa’s wine industry? Wines of South Africa (WoSA) CEO Siobhan Thompson spoke to the drinks business about how this year’s sustainability message can ensure longevity for the country’s trade.

Focus on "people, place and prosperity" vital to South Africa recovery, says WoSA CEO

The theme of this year’s CapeWine trade fair was Sustainability 360. A theme which Wines of South Africa (WOSA) CEO Siobhan Thompson hopes will put the focus on “people, place and prosperity” in light of a gruelling past few years for the region’s wine trade.

In some countries, alcohol was classified as an essential item during the Covid-19 pandemic, while in South Africa, the sale and transport of alcohol were banned for a total of 161 days over four periods from March 2020 to July 2021.

With a return to regular trading in 2022, Thompson is keen to look to the future in focusing on sustainability. CapeWine 2022  had seminars dedicated to regenerative farming, biodiversity and Fairtrade, plus a panel discussion from a handful of the country’s black winemakers on how to increase diversity in the wine industry.

“For us it’s been a very important journey to look at place in terms of looking after the environment, but most importantly, people,” Thompson says. “It’s all very well having a place, but if you’re not looking after the people it all falls apart.”

The backdrop of ongoing challenges is difficult to ignore.

“The threats, or shall I say the challenges, have been around financial sustainability,” Thompson says, quick to clarify this problem is “not unique to South Africa”.

However, she notes there is a “double whammy” for the country, “in terms of the fact that South Africa’s economy is also faltering”.

“We’ve got the challenges of war [in Ukraine], of freighting issues, accelerating costs, but we’ve also got issues within our own country of inflation and lack of electricity supply,” she says.

South Africans have experienced ‘loadshedding’ — successive rounds of national blackouts as electricity supply falls behind demand — since 2007, continuing to this day; a sign of the country’s enduring economic instability.

Availability of containers and “astronomically” inflated shipping costs have also hit the country hard, “putting a lot of pressure on our exports and our lead times”, and putting strain on profitability.

“Other countries do have the same issues, but ours is probably a bit heightened because of the distance where we are and our own economy,” Thompson says.

Distance also puts pressure on environmental sustainability. South Africa stands in good stead compared to its counterparts in the Southern Hemisphere — particularly Australia, which has temporarily lost its largest market due to Chinese tariffs. However, “when you compare it to Europe, that’s where our challenges lie,” she says.

“I’ve heard the conversation ‘We’d rather get Spanish or Italian or French wine, because the emissions will be far lower than putting it onto a ship and bringing it from South Africa. How do we lessen that footprint, but at the same time keep our economy going?”

Shipping in bulk and bottling in Europe provides a potential solution to the issue of environmental sustainability, and Thompson is keen to stress that exporting in bulk does not translate to lower quality.

“The word bulk is a very dangerous word, because it’s about unpackaged wine, and unpackaged wine doesn’t have to be low quality,” she says.

Balancing aspects of sustainability is a constant challenge. Shipping in bulk, though positive from an environmental standpoint, can tip the scales too far one way.

“[If] we ship in bulk format and bottle in Europe, then we need to look at the balance between carbon emissions and sustaining our workforce,” Thompson explains, “because if you’re going to put a whole lot of people out of work, that’s not going to help this country.”

For Thompson, getting the quality message out to consumers is vital. “For me, South Africa is in a position to say that we really do produce wines of excellent quality,” she says.

South Africa has typically held a legacy in the UK for entry level wines, but that legacy is shifting.

“We’re starting to see higher tier wines being listed and being supported,” she says. “That’s critically important because for a consumer, you need to create a ladder of experience.”

Thompson is keen to look toward a more positive future, despite the hardships felt by the South African wine trade. The positive trend towards more quality consumption of the country’s wines inevitably feeds into the sustainability message, giving longevity to both the people and place responsible for production.

“We are showing that we are producers of consistent quality,” Thompson says, noting that despite the country’s setbacks, “it’s a really positive story for us”.

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