Why you should care
Because everyone loves a David and Goliath story … with beer.
It’s Thursday night in Nairobi, and Aleem Ladak’s bar is packed with young professionals in suits and tight dresses gearing up for the night. The DJ is playing throwback hip-hop and Kenyan pop. The drinks are flowing. Five years ago, it’d have been wine and liquor, but nowadays, it’s beer — brewed here, in shiny silver tanks behind a glass wall. Ladak will likely sell out.
Across the continent, the beer business is booming. Last year, South African brewer SABMiller sold nearly 30 percent of its beverages in the African market, raking in $1.7 billion and helping to entice beer behemoth Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) to buy it up. That acquisition is pending, but sales are already up 11 percent this year, and by next year, Africa will be the world’s fastest-growing beer market, according to a 2015 report by Canadean. For a decade now, economists and industry experts have seen Africa — with its fast-paced urbanization and rising middle class with more money to spend — as a place with a massive pool of untapped consumer and growth potential. But perhaps nowhere has that dream been better realized than with beer.
While the rest of the world sees Africa’s youth-bulge as a strain on jobs and infrastructure, brewers see it through, well, beer goggles: Some 65 million Africans will reach the legal drinking age by 2023. By contrast, the landscape in developed countries is rather sobering: In the U.S., for instance, beer sales grew by a very diluted 0.2 percent. Ladak, the Kenyan brewer, lived the juxtaposition: He worked across Europe and Canada for craft brewers and some of the world’s biggest beer makers, and decided to commit to his hometown’s market potential. It has paid off: When he started, in 2009, he sold about 5,000 glasses a month. This year? He’s up to 60,000 — in hotels and restaurants, as well — and can’t make anymore.
The question for Ladak, and a host of other niche microbrewers who’ve just started gaining momentum, is whether they’ll have a place in Africa’s changing beer landscape. Craft breweries are but a fledgling phenomenon in Africa, with two in Kenya, a handful in Ethiopia and Namibia, and 160 in the most developed market, South Africa, according to estimates. The market is limited to young professionals and urbanites. Meanwhile, the $106 billion merger of SABMiller and AB InBev will create a company that will make one in three beers sold worldwide — and give AB InBev its long desired base in Africa, after years of scant sales there.
Historically, SABMiller’s has played pretty nice with African craft brewers, considering it has almost 90 percent of the market. On the one hand, it’s put resources to growing the beer market overall by selling hops to small brewers at cost and picking up the tab for craft brew festivals, says Lucy Corne, a beer writer and consultant based in Cape Town. On the other hand, its raw market power — which comes with massive influence over input and retail prices— makes brewers leery. “It’s a bit of a wolf in sheep’s clothes,” says Deon Englebrecht, who owns Stellenbrau, a craft brewery in South Africa’s winelands.
Even so, brewers like Englebrecht worry about a post-merger hangover. They point out that in other markets, including the U.S., AB InBev stood accused of buying up major distributors to allegedly make it more difficult for the little guys to get their brews on supermarket shelves. Last week, the Department of Justice approved the acquisition, but stipulated that it must review any distributor acquisitions AB InBev proposes for the next 10 years. As for the African market, ABin Bev spokesperson Emma Reynolds tells us that under its agreement with the South African government, it’s committed to “support the participation of small beer brewers in the local market.”
As it stands, the big brewers tend to produce one type of drink: “It’s a continent of lagers, lagers and more lagers,” says Corne. Of course, the independents, with their IPAs, stouts, malts and ales, tend to produce stuff of inconsistent quality — you may well get a pint that tastes skunked. Still, there’s variety, and for some Africans, there’s even more at stake: As in many countries, beer is about cultural identity.
Well before Europeans colonized Africa, many villages made their own homebrews from local crops, mostly maize but sometimes sorghum or even banana, and added twists like honey and ginger. The colonizers imported more standardized brews and tried to control access to alcohol. A half century after decolonization started, some of the continent’s oldest businesses are breweries, relics of the colonial era: Kenya’s iconic Tusker, for example, was first brewed by the British overlords in 1922. Independence leaders used beer as a rallying point — and, sometimes, a source of state funds. Idi Amin nationalized Uganda’s Nile Breweries, and, according to lore, the first regional African airline, East African Airways, fell apart when Kenya insisted on serving its national beer.
As it turns out, many of these supposedly national brews are actually owned by SABMiller, which prides itself on its ability to “reinvigorate national icon brands.” The world’s other big brewers are in on the game, of course. The Netherlands’ Heineken owns Congo’s Primus, while French-maker Castel owns Madagascar’s flagship, Three Horses Beer. For that matter, Budweiser — aka “America’s Beer” — has been owned by Belgium-based AB InBev since 2008.
For now, Ladak and his wife own Big Five Breweries. But being at capacity, he’s looking to open a new facility with six times the brew power and the ability to bottle the stuff. Which is to say, he needs some capital investment. He hopes it’ll come from American craft brewers.