Creating change in Sierra Leone, one sip at a time

Social entrepreneur Jerry Lockspeiser describes how his new book helps take the confusion out of wine, while helping create lasting change in Sierra Leone

Social entrepreneur Jerry Lockspeiser describes how his new book helps take the confusion out of wine, while helping create lasting change in Sierra Leone

I have always been fascinated by Africa. Growing up with several African friends who had to leave their countries under duress made me aware of the injustices that came with simply being born in a certain place at a particular time. After studying international politics and economics at university, I worked as a teacher in Sudan, then, eager to soak up more of the vast and diverse place, I did a master’s in African Studies.

In 2010, I travelled to Sierra Leone in west Africa with development charity ActionAid to see first-hand how their work was helping people in the country to recover after many years of civil war. I had supported the organisation’s development work for a long time, but never had the chance to see what was happening on the ground. It was a reality check. There was a lack of just about everything we take for granted, from health care to roads, education to consumer goods. But with a democratically elected government, it seemed the country was beginning the long journey of reconstruction towards a brighter future for its citizens.

Jerry Lockspeiser's visit to the Millione schools project in Sierra Leone May 2013

Jerry Lockspeiser (centre back) visiting the Millione schools project in Sierra Leone

I visited a school in a community to the west of the capital, Freetown. It was a ramshackle construction of corrugated iron sheets and palm leaves. Hundreds of kids aged between six and 14 were crammed, side by side, into open classrooms. There was no well for water and no toilets. The insanitary conditions meant that many girls did not go to school. It was obvious that without better primary education there was little chance of kids receiving secondary education, and without that there would not be enough educated people to rebuild the country.

Towards the end of the day, a community elder sidled up to me and said something I don’t think I’ll ever forget: “You plant the tree and we will harvest the fruit.” Her words were subtle, but her meaning was clear: ‘you provide the funds and we will educate our children.’ It was a powerful moment – on average women in Sierra Leone barely live to the age of 50 and she looked to be much older. It was humbling to see someone in the latter part of life still so focused on giving future generations a better chance.

Bringing the story home

Back in London I told this story to two friends who, like me, had spent their lives working in the wine business. We decided to create a wine brand and use all of the profit to fund the building of schools in Sierra Leone in partnership with ActionAid. We set up The Millione Foundation as a social business to own the brand.

By 2014, sales had raised more than £250,000, allowing us to build five schools and educate 1,500 children in some of the poorest parts of the country.

It seems obvious to me that projects with a sense of purpose beyond profit alone will be more fun and rewarding, and that this greater purpose often also contributes to their profitability. It can be easier for the leaders of privately owned companies to adopt a social or for-purpose ethic because they are not answerable to external shareholders and the obligatory profit-making focus of those that are publicly listed. For me, this is the ultimate point: it’s a question of understanding our values and choosing to live by them.

Answering your wine questions

Many wines have a natural life cycle with retailers and consumers, and in 2016, the Millione rosé had run its course. I hope we will be launching a new wine under the Millione brand before long, a prosecco, but now I am donating 100 per cent of the revenue from sales of my new book towards funding a sixth primary school in Sierra Leone. The book is called Your Wine Questions Answered: the 25 things wine drinkers most want to know. Unlike most wine books that start with the wine itself, this puts the drinker centre stage, answering the questions people ask themselves when they think about wine. Every time someone buys and reads the book they will learn something about wine, simultaneously helping children in one of the poorest places in the world to learn at school.


Jerry’s top five things people want to know about wine, but are often too embarrassed to ask:

What is cabernet sauvignon?
Cabernet sauvignon is one of the world’s major red wine grape varieties and is used to produce wines in many countries, including France, Chile, South Africa and Australia. Grape varieties are one of the four main indicators of what a particular wine might taste like, along with the name of the region where it was produced, the country and the brand.

How long will wine keep in an open bottle?
A partially empty bottle left open overnight will be losing its freshness by the next morning. Kept in the fridge with the cork or screw cap on it, it will last for up to three days, but transferred to completely fill a small plastic bottle, it can last for several weeks.

Should I trust medal labels on bottles?
Don’t rely on medals to find a wine you will like. It’s better to follow recommendations from people whose taste you trust, as tasting competitions are inevitably subjective.

Is red wine good for you?
It could be argued that wine in moderation can enhance life and friendships, but making us physically healthy is not its job. Many scientific studies have looked at specific potential health benefits with varying outcomes.

Why doesn’t the wine I bought on holiday taste as good at home?
How we perceive taste is about what is going on outside the bottle as well as inside. When we drink wine brought back from a holiday, the wine is the same, but the holiday is missing.

Jerry Lockspeiser has worked with wine for more than 30 years. He is also an author, a business consultant and a non-executive director of Positive News.

Main image: Des Willie