There is more to South African townships than meets the eye. Despite the countless pitfalls of township life, there are magnificent things happening every day. Think of the vibrant shisha nyamas, spaza shops, taverns and hair care salons that bring communities together.
But one thing no-one expects to see in a township is a group of women producing quality sweet rosé wine in a small a kasi backyard. This is exactly what the 71-year-old Ria Letoba and a group of five women are doing in Sebokeng, in southern Gauteng.
“People laugh at me when I tell them I farm with wine grapes in my backyard. They ask me ‘mama is this wine drinkable?’ and I tell them phuza ntanam (drink my child) and tell me,” Letoba explains.
The wine Letoba is talking about is called Lesaria wines, a sweet rosé produced in her backyard no bigger than a tennis court in Sebokeng. She does so with her two daughters and three more ladies from the area. Together, they are known as the Ukukhanya Multi-purpose Cooperative. Letoba came up with the name of the wine by combining her husband’s name, Liza, and her first name, Ria.
The cooperative was first established in 2015, but would not have existed had it not been for Letoba’s background.
The Grape Encounter
Letoba was first introduced to wine production back in 1983 while working as a cleaner at a restaurant. The owners of the eatery owned a wine farm and during the harvesting season, Letoba would be asked to assist the couple. “After crushing the grapes, I would take the crushed grapes to another room where the fermentation took place. I was never allowed to go into that room,” Letoba recalls.
It is there where her interest in winemaking was first sparked and she dreamt of owning a farm one day. Eventually, however, the restaurant closed and Letoba was left without a job.
In 2011 Letoba’s eldest daughter, Matshidiso Ndesi, bought a house in Vereeniging. The plot featured a grapevine. “I was at my daughter’s housewarming and as I walked through her backyard my nose was prickled by a familiar scent. It was the very same grapes that I used to crush with my feet,” she exclaims with delight.
Charged with confidence, Letoba told her daughter, “Ntanam, I know this tree very well.” “She of course thought I was crazy and dismissed what I said,” Letoba laughs.
It was the scent of very fragrant sweet strawberries which triggered pleasant memories for Letoba. “Come hell or high water,” she told her daughter and son-in-law, “I’m going to harvest these grapes.”
Google Is Your Friend
In 2014, Letoba transplanted the grapevine from her daughter’s yard to hers and used the seeds from the grapes to grow new seedlings. Over 20 years had passed and most of Letoba’s wine knowledge had slowly faded over the years. To revive her memory, the enthusiastic aspiring winemaker took to Google.
“Can you imagine,” she says while laughing ecstatically, “An old woman in her 60’s googling how to make wine!”
Letoba’s internet exploration led her to discover that in order to start the winemaking process she would first need special equipment. Not being able to afford it, she devised another plan. To ferment her wine, Letoba used a big blue drum that is often used to make umqombothi (a traditional beer). But too much air seeped through the bins and the wine failed. “When I tasted it, it didn’t taste the same as the wine my boss sold. So, I tried again,” she says.
In 2015, Ukukhanya Multi-purpose Cooperative made headway with their winemaking process in spite of not using the right equipment. “When I tasted it, I told the ladies, this is the one and we immediately started the process of registering the business,” Letoba says.
Susan Marieti, a member of the cooperative, says the community were shocked at what they were achieving. “People couldn’t believe it, but loved the wine. We were afraid to sell it though, because we didn’t have a licence yet.”
Sweet Smell Of Success
Satisfied with their recipe, the group contacted the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), and submitted samples of the wine. “They came back to me in April 2016. I remember the gentleman saying: Mama, your wine passed and ticked all the right boxes,” Letoba recalls.
Letoba is referring to Willie Mathe, senior agricultural food and quarantine technician at DAFF. When he visited the women in Sebokeng, it was only his intension to give advice. “To my surprise, I met a group of keen elderly people who were producing both wine and atchar. To be honest I never experienced something like that,” he says.
Wines go under strict quality checks and need to match specifications before it can be consumed and enjoyed by the public.
“I was quite sceptical at first, but the samples met all the requirements,” Mathe says.
Mathe, who hand-delivered the report himself, adds that the entire wine sampling process came at no charge to the cooperative as all costs were covered by DAFF.
The group of women then reached out to the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD). “We approached GDARD to help us with fermentation tanks, barrels to store the wine as well as other machinery,” Letoba recalls.
Agricultural economist for GDARD, Abraham Manoke, says he was motivated by what he saw in Letoba’s backyard. At the time of his visit the group of ladies had about 1000 seedlings of grapes which they were preparing to plant. “When the ladies showed me their wine certificates, I was really impressed by their initiative for wine processing, especially in Gauteng,” Manoke says.
To date, the cooperative has bottled over 132 bottles of rosé wine. Although they still have a long way to go, Letoba’s lifelong dream of owning land is finally coming true. The mover and shaker says she will soon own 5 hectares of land, but can’t reveal too much at this stage.
“My plans are so big, but it begins with having land and I’m excited for what the future holds. I want to leave a legacy that will empower the youth and grow our township economy,” she says.