Barney Jopson, FT
Over the past two weeks beyondbrics has run a series of posts looking at the rise of the emerging market consumer. To round it off it we head to the rawest end of Africa’s wilderness spectrum, where one multinational is trying to create a market for its product out of the dust.
The company is SABMiller, the South African brewer, and its venture is in south Sudan - a desolate region of parched scrub that could soon become the world’s newest country. It’s a branding gamble, and an extreme test of whether taking big risks in tough consumer markets really can yield bigger rewards.
South Sudan’s 9m or so people are still recovering from a fight for independence that froze the region’s development for decades and left it with mass illiteracy, deep poverty, scraps of infrastructure, and tragic healthcare facilities.
Yet in this unpromising environment a small but growing number of consumers are buying the chunky brown bottles of White Bull lager that SABMiller has been brewing in a factory on the outskirts of Juba, south Sudan’s capital, since May 2009.
Imported beer was available before - indeed, SABMiller was trucking in some of its own products from Uganda - but the brewer’s marketing ruse has been to turn south Sudan’s liberation struggle into the foundation of a compelling brand.
Beer was banned in the south for decades while the region suffered at the hands of successive, repressive Islamist regimes in Khartoum.
So after a peace deal in 2005, and the promise of a referendum on independence next January, the beer is seen as a symbol of south Sudan’s impending nationhood, and each sip as a rebuke to the reviled president in Khartoum.
As Ian Alsworth-Elvey, boss of SABMiller’s subsidiary South Sudan Beverages, told the FT earlier this year:
A lot of southerners will say their struggle in the civil war was a struggle to drink alcohol.
The beer sells at the equivalent of $1.10 per 500ml bottle and is bought mainly by men with a steady income, such as street traders or security guards working at aid agencies or the UN.
They tend to drink while sat on plastic furniture inside dingy corrugated iron drinking dens, or in courtyard bars whose concrete walls have been plastered with the White Bull logo at SABMiller’s behest.
Its Juba factory rises like a monument to industrialism out of the terrain around Juba and by the end of 2010 the company wants to increase its production capacity to 70m bottles a year (it churns out soft drinks too).
SABMiller spent $37m on building it and it announced another $3m investment to expand the factory’s capacity last week.
That is money that no western multinational has dared to invest in the unpredictable and occasionally violent region. But it’s hard to judge whether the lager is proving to be a commercial success, because SABMiller won’t give out sales figures.
All Alsworth-Elvey will say is that sales have exceeded all expectations and that he sold more in the three months from May to July this year than in the previous nine months.
In many emerging markets it’s still unusual to see an indigenous mark - or at least one presented as indigenous - outdo the caché often associated with western brands, but Levi’s launch of a new brand for Asia is one sign of that changing.
And Jonathan Oates, an SABMiller spokesman, told beyondbrics that the company sees chances to advance a similar trend in other parts of Africa where it is also launching “local” beer brands.
Go to places such as Angola and you see this nationalistic pride growing. These countries are becoming successful in their own right so people are saying ‘No longer do I want to associate myself with a Portuguese brand. I want to have an Angolan brand.’
As emerging market consumers grow wealthier and more numerous, that is further proof - in case anyone needed reminding - that foreign companies that want to profit from them will need to play by their rules.