Sudan brews its own beer industry

Ray Maota

sudan-text Nile Special Lager is a popular brand in
Uganda, and will soon be produced at
the SSBL in Southern Sudan.
(Image: David Perry/SABMiller)

SABMiller Latin America President Barry
Smith says their recent acquisition in
Argentina is part of their strategy to
dominate the continent.
(Image: SABMiller)

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Southern Sudan, which could become Africa’s newest country after a referendum in January 2011, now has its very own modern brewery.

The facility is based at an industrial plant in Juba – the proposed capital, if the referendum grants the region autonomy from the largely Muslim north.

Southern Sudan is currently a hub of new development with plans to restructure Juba as well as another one of its cities, Wau. Juba will take the shape of a rhino, while Wau will be designed to look like a giant giraffe from the air. Both animals are national symbols of Sudan.

London-based group SABMiller has set up Southern Sudan Beverages Ltd (SSBL) on the banks of the Nile River. So far about U$50-million (R354-million) has been invested in the project, with the first bottle having rolled off the production line in May 2009.

Beers produced there include White Bull lager, Chairman’s Extra Strong Beer, Nile Special Lager and Club Pilsener. Half-litre bottles of each are sold for three Sudanese pounds, which is slightly more than $1 (R7).

Business media relations manager of SABMiller Jonathan Oates said: “White Bull Lager was specifically brewed to meet the tastes of the Southern Sudanese consumer and was the culmination of months of planning and testing.

“The White Bull is an easily recognised cultural symbol for the people of Southern Sudan, and is synonymous with promoting the positive feelings of celebration, success and peace,” said Oates.

“The SSBL team spent months getting to know Southern Sudan consumers, their tastes, their demands and their expectations,” he added.

Ian Alsworth-Elvey, managing director of SSBL, said: “Many people questioned our logic in building not only the first brewery that Southern Sudan had seen for 50 years, but also the first manufacturing facility in Juba.

“However, the business has had a very warm welcome to the country and our beer, soft drinks and water brands have found real traction with consumers.

“These products are local, high-quality and affordably priced,” added Alsworth-Elvey.

SSBL has decided to double its annual output from 180 000 to 350 000 hectolitres as a sign of its confidence in the South.

“We have sold more beer in the first three months of our second year of operation than we did in the first nine months since production began. In 18 months we have turned the brand into one of the most recognisable in the country,” said Alsworth-Elvey.

Booze ban

While Southern Sudan was under Sharia Law from 1983 to 2005, no brewery could be established there as the consumption of alcohol was banned. However, when a peace deal was brokered in 2005 between military forces and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the environment became more tolerant.

Devout Muslims believe that drinking alcohol is sinful and one of the root causes of corruption, violence and suicide.

Before SABMiller set up the brewery, commercially produced beer had to be imported from Uganda and Kenya.

Banks of the Nile an ideal location

With beer being 90% water, it made sense to build the brewery close to the banks of the Nile.

The mineral content of water is unique to the region in which it is found, so the Sudanese beer brewed from the Nile has a distinct, unique character.

SSBL is aware of this and uses it as a key selling point.

According to the BBC, the malted barley, hops and yeast are all imported, but there are plans to team up with Sudanese farmers and start brewing with cassava.

Cassava, a hardy potato-like tuber that adapts to a vast range of growing conditions, is currently used to make home-made beer in the region.

NGO Farm-Africa is working with a range of subsistence farmers in Southern Sudan in the hopes they’ll become large-scale producers of the crop.

Farm-Africa was founded in 1985 to help small-scale farmers and herders in Africa grow better food, keep livestock healthy, make a basic living and manage natural resources in a more sustainable way.

“SABMiller is partnering with Farm-Africa to bring direct and long-term market opportunities for around 2 000 small-holder farmers with dependants. This means that about 15 600 people could benefit in three years,” said Alsworth-Elvey.

Beer with a rich history

South African Breweries (SAB) was established during the gold rush in Johannesburg in the late 1800s. The company’s first product was Castle Lager, which is still going strong today, 115 years later, and has won many awards over time.

In 2002 SAB merged with the US’s Miller Brewing to become SABMiller, which now operates in more than 60 countries on six continents. It has invested in rapidly emerging economies such as India, China, as well as Eastern Europe and other developed markets.

The brewing giant is licensed to produce Hansa Pilsener in South Africa, Snow beer in China, Italy’s Peroni Nastro Azzurro, the Czech Republic brand Pilsner Urquell, and Miller Genuine Draft.

SABMiller has also ventured into the Argentinian market with its acquisition of Cerveceria Argentina SA Isenbeck, the third largest brewer in that country.

Barry Smith, president of SABMiller Latin America, said: “We are pleased to have added Isenbeck to our Latin American footprint, giving us exposure to the fast-growing and attractive Argentinian beer market and complementing our existing Latin American operations.”

SABMiller first entered the Latin American market with the acquisition of Cerveceria Hondurena in Honduras, making the company the first international brewer to enter Central America.

It also has plants in Colombia, El Salvador, Ecuador, Panama and Peru.