How Global Brewers are Cashing in on Sorghum and Cassava Beer in Africa

Africans have been making and drinking beer before the first European set his foot on African soil but the Europeans were first to commercially produce beer in Africa. Throughout history, Human have consumed beer and made them from local cereal grains. Asian brewed their beer from rice and the native Americans from corn and Africans brewed from millet and sorghum, however, the Europeans who made their beer from wheat and barley as originally brewed in Mesopotamia and Egypt respectively, were the ones who improved and industrialized beer making. and during the Industrial Revolution, the production of beer moved from artisanal manufacture to industrial manufacture.

When the Europeans colonized Africa they also brought the wheat and barley beer with them. They went ahead to set up wheat and barley breweries all over Africa as we know it today. While wheat and barley became the standard ingredient for commercial beer production in Africa, brew from African cereals, millet and/or sorghum was abandoned by Africans. These traditional African Beer from millet and sorghum locally called Amgba (Cameroon), Bili-bili (Chad), Burukutu/Oti-oka/Pito (Nigeria), Dolo (Burkina Faso), Ikigage (Rwanda), Umqombothi/Kaffir beer (South Africa), Tchoukoutou (Benin, Togo), Tchapalo (Côte d’Ivoire) or Busaa (Kenya), are only domestically made and consumed in villages in Africa.

Read: The Ignored Socio-economic Values of Palm Wine, Ogogoro & Burukutu

However, starting slowly several decades ago with increase in momentum recently, global brewers such as AB InBev (which recently acquired SABMiller), Diageo and Heineken are now using local crops like sorghum and cassava for beer production in Africa. Initially brewers were forced to use local crops for beer-making by African governments through policies. The most significant being the Nigerian government ban on the importation of malted barley and local breweries were forced to use alternative indigenous cereals such as maize in January 1988 and sorghum as replacements for malted barley. This lead Nigerian Brewery, a subsidiary of Heineken and oldest brewery in Nigeria to include sorghum to its raw material.

However, Before the ban, Nigeria Brewery Plc was already actively exploring the possible use of local raw materials in liaison with grain research institutes such as the Institute of Agricultural Research in Zaria and the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi‐Arid Tropics in Kano. This was recorded as a near-instant success. According to the official history of Nigeria Brewery, as early as 1985, Three years before the official ban on the importation of barley by the Nigerian Government, ‘a new lager, Rex, had been developed by the company using a substantial quantity of local raw materials’.

Read: The Five Super Cereals No One Told You About

By September 1988, the company in conjunction with its Dutch technical partners, Heineken, ‘announced that it had achieved the unprecedented feat of 100% success with the use of local materials in the brewing of Star and Gulder’. This was perhaps the first successful industrial development in the brewing of lager beers from sorghum globally but the government later lifted the ban resulting to a slowed down of sorghum brewing programs in the country.

In recent decade, however, global brewers in Africa have invested in the usage of locally sourced raw materials for beer production. They have developed new brewery processes for brewing locally grown crops with barley and in some cases, entirely creating new brands around locally-grown crops. Unlike before this new drive is market driven as brewers now see opportunities in the production and marketing of low-cost beer from local materials. Some of the countries these brewers are exploring are Sierra Leone, Zambia, Nigeria, Mozambique, Uganda, Ghana and Zambia.

Heineken which is the first global brewer to be involved in sorghum beer production in Africa through its subsidiary Nigerian brewery plc in the 80s also invested in sorghum beer in Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone Brewery Limited (SLBL), majority-owned by Heineken started substituting imported malted barley with locally-grown sorghum in 2006 and 2016 launched a new beer, ‘Salone’ which is made from 100% local sorghum. Guinness a subsidiary of Diageo and a part owner of SLBL has also incorporated local raw materials. The company already boasts of 48 per cent locally sourced raw materials in Ghana which consist of maize, cassava, sorghum, and hops, and 43 per cent in Nigeria consisting of sorghum and maize. But the most significant investment is from SABMiller (now AB-InBev).

Read: How Knife-peeling of Cassava Leads to Huge Wastage

SABMiller which estimate from the nine African countries where it does business, shows that this informal African alcohol market made up of local beer from banana, palm, millet sorghum, millet, corn, pineapple etc. has a sales value of more than $3bn, went ahead to invest in research on local raw material for beer and innovative ways to penetrate this informal sector. Through Nile Breweries, its Uganda subsidiary, in collaboration with researchers at the National Semi-Arid Resources Research Institute (NASARI) in Uganda, SABMiller developed a new variety of white sorghum, Epuripur.

The Epuripur sorghum was found to have excellent brewing qualities and produces a high-quality clear beer and in 2003, Eagle Lager, which eventually became Nile Breweries’ flagship product and best-selling brand in the Ugandan market was launched. Within five years of its launch, the Eagle lager brand represented around half of the subsidiary’s sales in the country. The success of Eagle Lager in Uganda led to Ab inBev’s production of sorghum beer in Zambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe through its local subsidiaries.

SABMiller did stop with Sorghum as raw material, it started developing Cassava beer. After several years of research on cassava, another widely gown crop across Africa, SABMiller overcame the challenges hindering the commercial use of cassava for beer and launched the world’s first commercially produced cassava beer in called Impala in 2011. The Impala beer, which is 70 per cent cassava and 30 per cent barley was first brewed in Mozambique by SABMiller’s local subsidiary, Cervejas de Moçambique (CDM). The Cassava beer was a big success that eighteen months later, SABMiller launched cassava beer in Ghana under the brand name ‘Eagle’.

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The challenged that has complicated the commercialisation of cassava beer until now is that water content in cassava is high as such it starts to degrade immediately after harvest. To produce Cassava beer commercially SABMiller had to partner with Dutch Agricultural Development and Trading Company (DADTCO) which designed a mobile processing unit (AMPU) that travels to the cassava growing areas to process the roots in situ, preserving the integrity of the starch.

SABMiller is not the only company that sees the potential in using local raw materials for beer making, Rival brewing giant Diageo through its subsidiary, Guinness Ghana Brewery also started making its own cassava beer in Ghana in 2012, called “Ruut Extra”,

The business model of using indigenous starch sources to make affordable beer has empowered hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers across Africa. As more big brewers adopt this model to increase sales by making beer more affordable for Africans and as African governments continue to push out incentive policies to encourage the use of local content for beer production, Sorghum and cassava which are in abundant supply in Africa will soon become the major ingredient ahead of barley in beer production in the continent.

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