Nobody thought that good wine would come out of the tropics. The shorter light hours generally aren’t great for producing fuller bodied, high alcohol red wines, but Rift Valley Winery has defied conventions and has been producing good quality, crisp and fruity white and Rose and red Leleshwa wines for a while now.
Founded 20 years ago by Pius Ngugi, as one of the subsidiaries of Kenya Nut Company, Leleshwa wines are produced from a 35-hectare vineyard in Naivasha with current production at between 80,000 and 150,000 bottles annually.
They intend to increase the size of the vineyards to 70 hectares by 2017. Mbugua Ngugi now runs that end of business.
We met at his CBD office. He kept me waiting for close to an hour and when I was finally shown in, I was surprised at how humble his office was: a small room, no curtains, a simple desk, a noticeboard on a wall and a product display cabinet.
He sat behind his desk in a T-shirt and khakis.
You aren’t a stickler for time, are you?
I’m not a stickler for time, I know…
How do you do business in this town when you keep people waiting?
Actually I keep time, but sometimes I get caught up in things and they need to be finalised and you just can’t move on until you finalise. So that’s how you end up not keeping time.
Your office is surprisingly quite threadbare…
I’ve never been one about surroundings as such, so long as I’m comfortable. I don’t like to think I’m pretentious. I’m not trying to show anything other than what you see on me. I don’t even dress enough…my idea of a big meeting is always a blazer.
Kenyans must be drinking enough wine for you to stay in business and rebrand Leleshwa?
Wine is niche, yes. It’s supposed to be upmarket. If you’ve ever been to a winery, it’s quite rudimentary. Not that we’re ashamed of our winery…it’s very good wine.
Our main business is nuts. Macadamia and cashew nuts. We are also into coffee and tea. That’s the main part of the business. That’s how Kenya Nuts started and it has diversified into things like wine and beef. We also have a cereal section.
I’m handling the Kileleshwa branch, which was actually something of my father’s that started out as a hobby and its grown from there. Now we’re trying to commercialise it and take it to new heights, producing wine pretty much on the Equator. We want to make a name for ourselves in that regard.
All the products we produce we’d like to think are top quality and that’s what we are trying to achieve with Leleshwa.
It must be tough producing wine for this market. I would assume people might want to buy foreign wine because they have been at it for longer?
Leleshwa is struggling with what I’d call old world hangovers in terms of this is not a traditional wine growing region. People don’t believe that wine grapes can be grown in Kenya, let alone by a Kenyan company in Nairobi.
There’s no history, there’s no heritage. If you look at some Italian or French wines you will notice that they have been producing for 300 years. We have no history or heritage.
We’re not a region that grows grapes and that is what we are struggling with; people don’t actually believe that it can be done and that we’re doing it. A lot of people think we’re just bottling it and saying that it’s Kenyan.
So what’s your edge?
The edge is that we are doing it! And when we are ready to open up and show everyone what we are doing, that will be our edge. We’re trying to give it some sort of providence. We are giving it an identity.
Leleshwa as a brand is about five years old and I want it to be the best new altitude wine in the world. Anything that grows within the tropics, we intend to be on the top of that as well as to be able to compete with international brands and the rest of the traditional growing regions.
Do you like doing this or is it something that you have to do because of family obligations?
I’ve always been in agri-business. I studied economics but I’ve always been in agri-business. It’s what I know. It’s what I’ve grown up into. I was born in a farm in Ruiru so I’ve always been farming really. I have one younger brother and two older sisters and they are all in the farming business.
Are you like your old man?
I don’t think I’m anything like him, but I’m sure others will say otherwise. But possibly… stubborn, maybe driven?
OK, how are you unlike him then?
I think I have more patience than he does…(Pause). I think. He’s probably got better vision than I do. I’m more of a doer rather than a visionary. He probably likes to have lots of things going at one time. Personally, I like to have less balls in the air. I like to concentrate. I like to focus… so I can drop few balls.
Outside work what do you do?
Hang out with family. Maybe play some polo.
Having a father like that, who started this business ages ago and you come in, do you always feel like you are living under his shadow?
(Pause) Sort of. I mean everything I’ve been doing is his vision, it’s not my vision. I’ve been creating on his vision. Suddenly, I have to be the visionary and try and create a vision now for the group of companies. That’s daunting you know. It’s not easy to execute…to create the vision.
So what’s your vision for the company?
Currently it’s quite basic. It’s really just to execute his vision. If everything that we talk about can be done, it would be ridiculous. It would be huge. It’s taking risks that no one else wants to take. It’s persevering through swamps you’re not sure you’re gonna get to the end of. And just keep moving and believe that it will somehow come to fruition.
How old are you now? Married?
I’m 36, married for two years now with one son. He’s 11- months- old.
What do you want for your son?
Have a full and rich life, but most importantly to be able to make decisions easily and freely and to do what he wants. I’d love for him to work within the family, but I don’t think I’m going try to make him do that.
What mistakes did your dad make with you that you wouldn’t want to repeat with your son?
My dad worked a lot and so he didn’t really partake as much as I would have liked him to so I’d like to be around for my son. Whatever his interests are, I’d like to support him in that. Not that my dad wasn’t supportive, he was but his presence would have been more welcome.
He was always working. He loves his work, It’s what drives him even now. It’s what gets him out of bed. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just what it is.
What’s your weakness as a father?
I’m sure I’m weak at everything about being a dad. I don’t know anything I’m doing really or what I’m supposed to be doing (grins).
The downside of growing up privileged?
People thinking that you are spoilt, that it’s a given that you are spoilt. It doesn’t matter what your outlook is. It doesn’t matter if you are hardworking, smart or driven, people just imagine you have no care in the world.
What’s your biggest extravagance?
Horses. I love horses even though they’ve almost killed me a few times. I have a number of horses at the farm in Naivasha. I’ve been riding since I was maybe seven or eight.
Are you reading anything special currently?
I don’t read as much as I should. The problem with me is that I don’t like fiction. I find it very difficult to read fiction.
P.O Box 52727