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The Sipping Point

International breweries are going after the African beer market with gusto, partly by tapping into a home-brew tradition

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Michael Hirshon

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CHIBUKU SHAKE-SHAKE PROBABLY ISN’T something you’d order on a first date. A murky Zambian beer made from corn or sorghum (or both), it comes in a cardboard carton and costs around 50 cents a pop. The name derives from the fact that in order to distribute the sediment that settles on the bottom, you have to shake the drink before opening it, and carefully: There are tales of overshaking and resultant explosions.

Yet in recent months this volatile thirst-quencher has rolled across East and Sub-Saharan Africa like a pungent wave. Already a hit in Zambia, where it has been consumed in one form or another for decades, Chibuku is now available in Ghana, Mozambique, Swaziland and Tanzania, with more countries being added soon. And it’s not the only beer making its mark in these areas. The rollout of Chibuku was orchestrated partly in response to Senator Keg, a cheap Kenyan brew made with sorghum or barley. This year, East African sales of Senator Keg, which is hand-pumped in bars for about 20 cents a mug, are expected to pass the $150 million mark.

The popularity of Chibuku and Senator Keg is a triumph of neither local entrepreneurship nor grassroots marketing. Chibuku is owned by the London-based multinational SABMiller, whose more illustrious products include Grolsch and Peroni Nastro Azzurro. Senator Keg was introduced to Africa in 2004 by SABMiller rival Diageo, whose whizbang lab in England is now consolidating its presence here by conjuring up an array of products for African palates and pockets, such as Snapp, an apple-flavored beverage aimed at women.

There’s a good reason for the $500 billion brewing industry’s sudden interest in this long-ignored market. With their economies taking off, Africans are in the mood to party, and beer is increasingly the tipple of choice. As Americans rediscover spirits, Germans cut carbs and British pubs close at a rate of 18 a week, Africa’s emerging consumer class promises to fill the void. This is due in part to its perception of beer as an aspirational drink, especially among young men, for whom slogans like “Guinness gives you strength” resonate strongly. Nigeria, in fact, is now Guinness’ largest market.

“Africa is the one place where beer volume growth has outperformed economic growth over the past couple of years,” says UBS analyst Olivier Nicolai, pointing up a trend that’s prompting brewers to invest heavily in the region. SABMiller alone has poured almost $2 billion into Africa over the past five years, building plants in Nigeria, Uganda, Mozambique, Angola and South Sudan. Diageo has invested more than $1.5 billion here. Heineken, the leading brewer in Nigeria, last year paid the Ethiopian government $163 million to acquire two state-owned breweries.

While the outlays are considerable, so are the potential rewards—and not only in the ways you’d expect. Africans may have acquired a taste for commercially produced beer, but the homemade stuff is by far the more popular option. According to UBS, the average African drinks 16 pints of commercial beer a year (about 10 times less than the average American); however, on average, that same consumer downs more than 50 pints of home brew made from fermented cassava, sorghum, millet or bananas—despite the fact that such concoctions have sometimes proven deadly.

So in addition to introducing mainstream products into the African market, international breweries are casting an eye toward replicating the ever-popular home brew in a far safer form. Seeing the potential for a drop-off in beer-related ER visits, African authorities have greeted the arrival of foreign breweries with smiles and, more to the point, financial incentives.  

This March, SABMiller upped the ante by debuting into a wide African market something Nicolai calls a “game changer”: Chibuku Super, a brew with a fixed alcohol content and, because it comes in plastic bottles rather than cartons, a 35-day shelf life (previously, 10 days was pushing it). “This is significant because it can be transported to shops throughout much of the continent,” Nicolai says. “It will also be very cheap, and cost is a big factor.”

But the regional economic benefits of Africa’s budding beer market are even more far-reaching. Unlike homemade brews, mass-produced beer generates tax revenue, while the sheer scale of the industry’s farming, distribution and retail operations promises a significant number of new jobs. It won’t hurt, either, that quality control and standardized alcohol content means that workers could see a marked decrease in the severity of their hangovers. As Mark Bowman, head of SABMiller’s African operations, notes, “Everybody wins.”

BOYD FARROW, a London-based writer and editor, believes “Chibuku Shake-Shake” would be a very good name for a dance craze.

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