Let’s be real. If you’re thinking about the typical profile of a South African wine farmer, you’re probably not imagining someone named Tebogo Ditsebe. Also, you are probably not picturing a wine farm in the heart of the Free State. Right?
Well, Ditsebe is creating some serious black girl magic with Botebo Wines, her very own wine brand named after the deep soil of Jacobsdal – cattle and maize country, if ever there was one. “Botebo” means “depth” in Sesotho, and in many ways the brand is also testimony to the many hurdles this farmer and entrepreneur has already overcome.
Growing up, she never imagined that one day she would earn both a vineyard and a wine label. Yes, she was always been rather entrepreneurial, but falling pregnant in her teens made all the obvious career choices a little less obvious. To make matters even more interesting, she was attending a Catholic boarding school when she fell pregnant.
“Being a teenage mom, in a sense, forces you to grow up quickly and to be responsible because you have a child to take care of now,” she tells Food For Mzansi. “I was judged by the community, but, you know, when you are faced with a barrier and you know people are judging you, the judgements become your driving force.”
In a rather conservative community, Ditsebe suddenly had to fight the many stigmas attached to teenage mothers whilst trying to land back on her feet. She recalls, “I had to prove that I am not going to be the rotten apple or tomato that they thought I was going to be. I told myself that I am not going to be a failure and that is what has kept me going.”
Inner healing on farming plot
Today, she is a 52-year-old mother of three. She was born in Kimberley in the Northern Cape as the middle daughter of a nurse-mother and a mineworker father. If there is one thing they taught her, it was to be fiercely independent.
After matriculating from Mariasdal High School in 1987 she then, six years later, also obtained a post-graduate diploma in business management at the University of Cape Town in 1993. Thereafter she moved to a farming plot in the Diamond City.
She was surrounded by sheep and chickens who helped her heal from what she describes as the most difficult years of her life. Her journey to healing involved growing her own spinach and tomatoes, although she did not really consider farming as a potential career option. Truth to be told, at the time it was merely a plot she was living on; a plot that happened to be farm.
Ironically, she dreamt of a life where she could farm with roses. “My interest in roses were personal, but it wouldn’t have worked for me because Kenya would have flooded the market already with the roses before my harvest. So, it was the economy of scale that made me reconsider.”
Dreams of becoming a rose farmer
It was in 2001 when she met the now late Herman Galama, who lived in the area and shared her aspirations to actually become a rose farmer. Unfortunately, she couldn’t turn her dream into a reality because she did not have enough start-up capital.
Galama approached Ditsebe to buy his 48-hectare farm in Bloemfontein because he noticed her passion for farming. “I didn’t hesitate,” she said. “I used to own a consultancy training firm in Kimberley which was not doing well. So, when the opportunity to buy a farm came along, I grabbed it with both hands.”
Ditsebe approached the department of land reform and rural development for financial assistance to acquire the farm and went through a lengthy process until a 10-year lease agreement with the option to buy was signed in 2013 under the Proactive Land Acquisition Strategy (PLAS).
She says the farm was neglected when she took the reins, but together with her workers they managed to revive the once forgotten grapevines with loads of water, fertilisers and love. She also attended a number of short courses in Cape Town to learn more about the wine industry.
A year later, in 2014, she produced her first harvest and launched her self-funded wine label to generate cashflow for her business. Today, Botebo Wines boasts 18 hectares of vineyard and different cultivars, ranging from white muscadel, chenin blanc, chardonnay, merlot to cabernet sauvignon.
“For me, the process of developing my (wine) brand was my highlight because a brand can either make you or break you. I had three different logo ideas in mind and pitched them to my friends and family. They all agreed with the one I liked (most), and I knew then that it would be welcomed by the market.”
Botebo Wines are currently sold online and even the most picky wine lovers seem to be loving the Jacobsdal wine magic in their glasses.“When people taste my wine, I receive a good response and feedback. I have no doubt that will continue being the case because my grapes are good, and they have been nurtured from the strength of a woman!”
In 2018 she was the overall winner of the agro-processing funding programme run by the department of economic, small business development, tourism and environmental affairs in the Free State. She was awarded R450 000 worth of equipment.
She also received R3 million from the national department of agriculture, land reform and rural development to plant an additional five hectares of grapevines to produce raisins to generate further income for her agribusiness.
“We need more support from the government to grow farmers. It doesn’t matter in which industry they may farm. And I think we can grow and contribute much more meaningfully to the economy and the GDP of our economy. At the end of the day, we do put bread on the table for the people we employ,” Ditsebe says.
She adds that breaking into the wine industry came with a number of challenges. “The wine industry is a highly regulated industry and it can be a barrier to new entrants.”
Ditsebo says the reason why there might not be enough black wine female farmers in the Free State is because they may not be knowledgeable about the wine industry, and also might not have enough capital to take up space. “Wine grapes, as a crop, is not popular or well-known and wine farming also has a lot of input costs involved.”
Ditsebe currently employs three permanent workers and 20 seasonal workers. She dreams of turning her vineyards into an exciting tourism destination where lovebirds can wed, relax, and breathe the fresh air on her farm. After all, she says, “When people think vineyards, they should not only think about the Western Cape, but they should also think about Free State.”