SABMiller tries fresh approach in Sudan

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When SABMiller decided to take a gamble and build a brewery in South Sudan, it became clear that some unconventional practices were going to have to be adopted in one of the least developed and poorest regions of Africa.

An initial task was working out how to acquire a plot of land in an area with an undeveloped land ownership system, a problem that was overcome after the slaughter of a cow on the chosen property and the acquisition of a tractor for the local community, as well as royalty payments.

The brewery opened just more than 20 months ago, but it remains a challenging and expensive place to operate. Materials have to be transported to the landlocked country – the world’s newest – through the Kenyan port of Mombasa. Clearing the port can take weeks, before trucks embark on a week-long journey through Kenya and Uganda to reach Juba, South Sudan’s capital, at a cost of $15,000 to $20,000 (U.S.).

The experience may be extreme, but it highlights some of the issues facing companies looking to tap into the fast growing economies of Africa.

“It’s [South Sudan] been fascinating,” says Mark Bowman, SABMiller’s managing director Africa. “You have 8 million people and no one making beer. There are not many greenfield opportunities left in Africa, so when you see that, there’s a significant amount of risk but also a tremendous amount of opportunity.”

The poor state of infrastructure across the continent is one of the major impediments to increased investment in Africa.

Yet the potential is also clear, with sub-Saharan Africa forecast to grow at about 5.5 per cent this year, and a low average beer per capita consumption of seven to eight litres per capita annually. This compares to 60 litres for South Africa, the continent’s largest and most developed economy.

South Africa generates the equivalent of 95 per cent of the continent’s electricity and hosts about two-thirds of its rail network, but still suffers its own power and infrastructure problems, illustrating the infrastructure deficit elsewhere.

SABMiller, which has direct operations in 17 African countries, is bullish on the continent’s prospects and expects volume growth rates of eight to 10 per cent per annum. Last year, it doubled capacity at its South Sudan brewery to 350,000 hectolitres and it is sourcing sorghum from local farmers, which will help reduce costs. The brewer had planned to branch out beyond Juba, but has had to put those plans on hold because of the absence of paved roads.

Indeed, throughout the continent, the company knows it cannot rely on states to provide services such as water or electricity and instead looks to be self-reliant, supplying its own power, water and water treatment. As a result, putting in new capacity costs 30 per cent more than in developed markets, Mr. Bowman says.

The dual problems of poor roads and negligible rail networks also means the model of having one large brewery and distributing across the country is not feasible in many places.

In Tanzania, for example, SABMiller has four breweries producing 3 million hectolitres, equivalent to a small brewery in South Africa. Its newest brewery in the east African state was opened in Mbeya, a town in Tanzania’s southwestern corner, partly to save $1.5-million annually transporting beer from Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital.

The brewery cost about $70-million, but it has helped boost sales in a remote area of the nation, Mr. Bowman says. “The challenge with Africa is that it’s a billion people but it’s very fragmented, each country has its own bureaucracy [and] many of these countries are sub-scale by many standards. The most efficient thing would be to have 25 breweries across Africa and ship it around but Africa obviously doesn’t work that way,” he says.

But he believes countries are beginning to address the infrastructure constraints. “There’s absolutely no doubt that if you take it Africawide, it’s getting much better very quickly. We are seeing improvements in all aspects – governance, road infrastructure,” he says. “Areas that are perhaps underperforming still would be utilities such as power and water.”