Letter from Nairobi

In April 2000, Justin Willis wrote about the beer wars of East Africa in his "Letter from Nairobi" for the TLS. As something of a Guinness man myself, I find the article intriguing:

War has broken out in East Africa. This being the Third World, it is, of course, a proxy war; the protagonists are simply the agents of larger interests, fighting out a wider struggle on this local stage. But this is not a shooting war; it is a war of advertising and balance sheets, where retrenched labourers are the casualties and market segments the strategic objectives.

Welcome to the post-Cold War world, and to the intercontinental rivalries of capital; welcome to the beer wars! Like all good wars, this one has a historical context. In 1922, two failed white farmers in Kenya decided to try their luck in the brewing business. After a hesitant start, they prospered – or rather, one of them did, the other having in the meantime got on the wrong side of an elephant. Their success was perhaps unsurprising. There were no other breweries in East Africa, and an obliging government favoured this local enterprise with a degree of fiscal protection.

Colonial preoccupations with the maintenance of social distance meant that “European” beer could not be sold to Africans, but there was a sufficiently large European and Asian population in Kenya to consume all the little brewery could produce. By 1926, the company was issuing dividends. So was born Kenya Breweries Limited – KBL. Over the next sixty years, they swept across the region.

Breweries were established in Tanganyika and then in Uganda; newer, bigger, breweries were built in Kenya. KBL advanced on all fronts, turning every tactical situation to their advantage. African political agitation in the later 1940s overturned the restrictions on drinking “European” beer, and overnight the potential market grew by several thousand per cent. Drinking bottled beer became a political statement, and an assertion of aspirations to modernity and development. In the early 1960s, KBL secured an alliance with the new political and business elite of independent Kenya, chasing non-citizens out of distributorships, and encouraging a rapid “Africanization” of their staff, distributors and shareholding. When breweries were nationalized in Tanzania and Uganda, KBL simply stepped up production in Kenya and, with a remarkably effective cross-border bombardment, outsold the breweries which had been taken from them. At the beginning of the 1990s, the company controlled 98 per cent of the bottled-beer market in Kenya, and well over half of the market in Tanzania and Uganda.

At this point, however, everything started to go wrong; the generals of KBL lost their sure touch and were forced into a bitter retreat. In the heady days of the Kenyan transition to multi-partyism in the early 1990s, KBL publications and advertisements suggested a certain lack of devotion to the incumbent president. Unfortunately for them, the president won re-election. The cosy relationship between the political elite and KBL was broken. At the same time, the combination of economic “liberalization” across the region and political transition in South Africa led to invasion by a rival brewing power.

South African Breweries arrived on the East African scene rather as the German tanks among the Polish cavalry. Depending on whose figures you believe, South African Breweries – SAB – is either the fourth or the seventh largest brewer in the world. They dominate the market in South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana and Zimbabwe; they have a substantial market share in Namibia and Zambia. And, along with many other South African companies, they are storming rapidly northwards. In 1991, they acquired a share in Tanzania Breweries, the floundering state corporation that had been created when KBL’s interests were nationalized. In 1997, they took a holding in Nile Breweries, an Asian-owned brewery recently re-established in Uganda after a lengthy absence. With remarkable energy and efficiency, they transformed Tanzania Breweries, capturing a large share of the market from KBL. Worst of all, from KBL’s point of view, SAB found a Kenyan ally: a veteran politician and businessman who had a commercial grudge against KBL and took gleeful advantage of the opportunity to poke them in the eye by setting up a brewery in alliance with SAB, opening up a bridgehead in KBL’s heartland. KBL found themselves undone by the relationship with the State and with the country’s elite, and they have had ample cause to rue the political miscalculation that had deprived them of official support.

They found a new ally, however; though the alliance is hardly an equal one.

Guinness plc has long had a substantial African market for a (remarkably strong) version of their trademark stout, having licensing agreements with a number of African brewers – including both Kenya breweries – who now market their own rather inferior stout in competition with the real stuff. When Kenya Breweries radioed for help, Guinness sent the airborne division. Now the top brass on both sides of the beer wars are from outside East Africa. The Managing Director of Kenya Breweries is a Guinness man, hardened by years of West African campaigning; the company has shed staff and closed one Kenyan brewery, and is counter-attacking by setting up their own new brewery in Tanzania. So now the beer wars are well and truly raging.

Guinness, who see themselves as chivalrous combatants, accuse SAB of a series of offences against the Geneva Conventions of business; SAB make counter-allegations. Excited subalterns run about the offices of these companies’ various subsidiaries, waving dispatches from the front which detail the latest atrocities of the foe. Advertising posters are defaced; loudspeaker vans broadcast hostile propaganda; staff are suborned. And, more seriously, distributors are raided, staff attacked, vehicles sabotaged.

As is appropriate in a war, calls have gone up for local citizens to rally to the flag. From Mombasa to the Mountains of the Moon, the region is plastered with the recruiting posters of the competing forces. Although the net result of the past few years has been to turn this into a fight between multi-nationals, both sides are overtly nationalist in their appeals. “Our heritage”, announces one, with a picture of a foaming glass of beer; “My country, my beer!” asserts another. The irony of all this is particularly striking in East Africa. The people who write the advertising copy, the urban elite, and the generals in the opposing forces, may all think that fizzy lager in brown bottles is a national drink: the rest of the populace seem disinclined to agree. In the war between the big brewers, most people are quite definitely non-combatants, and even collateral damage has been limited to the defacement of the local shop with gaudy adverts.

But people are involved in a beer war of their own – a protracted, guerrilla, war. And if control of territory is the mark of success, the guerrillas are well ahead in this conflict. Around 80 per cent of the alcohol drunk in East Africa is made not by KBL, or SAB or any other company: it is made in tin cans in people’s backyards and kitchens, and sold in makeshift bars to customers who drink it from grubby plastic tubs. The armoury of the drink guerrillas is extensive, and formidable: maize, sugar-cane, rotten pineapples, bananas, tea leaves, dried yeast and many other substances are all potential ammunition for these low-tech warriors. In classic fashion, they control most of the countryside, leaving the uniform brown bottles of the opposing armies pinned down in the towns and strung out along the major highways. Even before SAB invaded, KBL had begun to lose ground to the guerrillas; bottled-beer sales in Kenya dropped by more than 25 per cent between 1991 and 1997.

As tends to be the case with guerrilla wars, the lines of battle are actually rather confused. At one level, the fight is with the Government, and with capital. Since independence, all three East African governments have tried to suppress the drink guerrillas. Their campaign is waged on ideological and fiscal grounds. Governments espouse ideas of modernity and development in which the drinking of “traditional liquor” is absolutely undesirable. People who make and drink their own alcohol are castigated as lazy, unhealthy, backward and – of course – poor. Modernity demands the drinking of bottled beers and spirits.

This is a vision of progress that beer companies have been very happy to promote in their advertising – good citizens drink bottled beer. Indeed, when KBL launched a low-cost bottled beer in 1996, it was called “Citizen”. For the State, bottled beer is not only modern, it is rather lucrative. In Kenya and Tanzania, a significant chunk of recurrent government revenue comes as tax from the breweries. The drink guerrillas defy the official urge to be model citizens; and they evade the taxman and the shareholder. That they do so successfully is partly because the anti-insurgency machinery of the State is so eminently corruptible: policemen accept a bottle of spirits and forget to kick over the still; village officials take half the price of a licence and issue no receipt.

But this fight against State and Capital is only part of the story. Many of the drink guerrillas – probably, the majority of them – are women. In much of East Africa, men control cash crops, and land, and they are more likely to secure such paid employment as there is. But women can earn money – by selling alcohol to men. Since they do not pay taxes, they sell it rather cheaply; hence their continued success against the heavily burdened brown bottles, struggling along under their regulation kit of taxes and standards. Poor men, especially poor young men, are also easy recruits to the swelling ranks of the drink guerrillas.

Older men, and wealthier men, lament the passing of an age in which alcohol was their privilege, its consumption bound in with the community rituals which they dominated. There is much romanticization in this, for the past was not quite as harmonious as they suggest. But concern over the sale of drink is a focus of wider anxieties, and so, sometimes, these older men become allies of the Government against the women and young men: reporting their movements, demanding action against them. They fear the independence of the drink guerrillas and the drunken young swaggerers thrown up by this conflict. For the drink guerrillas are not noble ideologues. They are the marginal, and often they are desperate. They fight, and argue over money and cheat their creditors; and sometimes they commit atrocities of their own. Each year, some drinkers die from the effects of drinks laced with methanol or formaldehyde by get-rich-quick dealers.

So, what will happen in the beer wars? No doubt Guinness and SAB will continue to slug it out, though now it seems likely that the lines will stabilize and the campaign will settle down to one of slow attrition. And, encumbered as they are by taxes, neither of these armies is likely to make much progress against the insurgents who move so effortlessly around them. The guerrillas, surely, will continue to control the bulk of this territory.

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