Monday read: A small Kenyan brewery tries to take on the big boys, and what that has to do with church hymns

Working in Keroche’s favour is that Kenya drinks more beer than any other country in East Africa, 56% of per capita alcohol consumption is beer

ON a dusty plain of Kenya’s Rift Valley, near the town of Naivasha, stands a shiny, glass-walled, four-storeyed building.

It’s an incongruous sight in these parts, especially because of the way it contrasts with the landscape; here, the buildings are typically grubby, modest affairs.

The structure is a brewing factory belonging to Keroche Breweries, the only large-scale brewery owned by a local Kenyan, and it is probably one of the very few in Africa to be owned by a woman.

Tabitha Karanja started the business with her husband back in 1997. Initially manufacturing fortified wine, the entreprise moved into making spirits, and then took on the big boys by venturing into beer in 2008.

It would be an epic David versus Goliath fight – for more than 90 years, East Africa Breweries Ltd (EABL) has had a near monopoly over the country’s beer market, the company is majority-owned by the UK-headquartered, multinational drinks giant Diageo.

Beer wars
With an 80% market share, EABL was not going to roll over and cry as Keroche invaded its turf. In the early 2000s, South African breweries Castle – part of today’s SABMiller – had made its first venture into the Kenyan market.

But EABL aggressively countered Castle’s each and every move in what was then described as the “beer wars”. Crucially EABL played the patriotism card, touting its flagship brew, Tusker, as truly Kenyan. It worked. In 2002, Castle quietly packed up and left town.

(READ: 15 things Africa could do with the $106 billion cash from deal between world’s two biggest beer makers)

So Keroche wasn’t going to have it easy, and Karanja knew it. But she forged ahead anyway, focusing on serving the lower-income market, where she saw a gap.  Many Kenyans could not afford the EABL fare, but ended up being killed and blinded by dangerous, adulterated and homemade brews.

Today, Keroche Breweries produces 420,000 litres of beer a day, from 4.5 tonnes of barley that is milled, mixed with hops, boiled and fermented in ten giant tanks for 21 days. It’s a ten-fold expansion from what they were putting out last year, when a $5million investment upgraded capacity to current levels.

“We have a 3-4% market share overall, but in some areas it’s up to 20%,” said managing director Kabutha Nduati. “We plan to go public in 4-5 years.” It’s been a difficult journey for Karanja, who has struggled finding distributors willing to sell her beer. She has also had to battle against big tax rises and copycat rivals.

Still, brewing is a visceral process to watch, like cooking food, and Keroche’s massive operation – the plant puts out 40,000 bottles an hour – is noticeably so.

And unlike other breweries in the region, Keroche can claim to be “natural” – in the sense that there are no added sugars or chemicals incorporated in to speed up the fermentation cycle.

It’s just water, barley and hops allowed to ferment for 21 days, resulting in a particularly crisp taste for its key brand Summit beer – at least, according colleagues who were part of this trip, fellows of a business journalism fellowship sponsored by Bloomberg Media Initiative Africa and in partnership with the Africa Leadership Initiative (ALI).

Although has a reputation for being small and local, the entreprise is surprisingly internationally facing: the barley and hops are sourced from Belgium, the machines and technology from Germany, and the bottles from Tanzania. 

Keroche Breweries CEO Tabitha Karanja (R) with Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation Adan Mohammed (L) at the brewery in Naivasha, Kenya. (Photo/ FB).

It’s only the water and the bottle tops that can claim to be truly Kenyan. The reason: EABL has exclusive sourcing arrangements with almost all suppliers in the cycle, leaving Keroche with no choice but to look for its raw materials outside the country.

Still, it appears that the company is yet to decide what its anchor selling point will be: it seems torn between playing up its claim that the beer is natural and sugar free, playing the underdog card, or simply trumping up that its better tasting than Tusker.

But working in Keroche’s favour is that Kenya drinks more beer than any other country in the East African region, 56% of the alcohol consumption per capita is beer, and 22% spirits.

That makes it an outlier in a region where the bulk of alcohol is consumed in the form of traditional brews made from bananas, sorghum, millet and other grains.

Uganda is famous for its waragi, a generic term for traditional gin made from a variety of ingredients, including cassava, bananas, millet or sugar cane.  In the central and southern regions, the main brew is called tonto, made from bananas infused with fermented sorghum.

Maize, millet and sorghum brews are common in Eastern and Southern Africa, where they are known by various names such as chibuku (Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi), caporoto (Angola), busaa (Kenya), ikigage (Rwanda) and umqombothi (South Africa). In Rwanda and Burundi, the main drink is a banana wine called urwagwa. 

(READ: Nursing a hangover today? You’re not alone: South Africa, Gabon, Namibia biggest drinkers in Africa)

Still, all drunkards in the region have something in common, in that they are of two types: there are those who pass out and sleep in ditches, and those who sing loudly all the way home.

Heaven’s - or Hell’s - Gate
For the singing type, the tunes always tend to be church hymns and religious songs – alcohol breaks down inhibitions, blunts the ego (in the Freudian sense), and makes people return to their core, and especially the things of childhood.

But why church hymns and not nursery rhymes? My own sense is that the feeling of drunkenness – the head spinning, the distorted sense of time, the magnified emotions – is what death must feel like, and your mind recognises this is a eerie, pre-cognitive sense.

In other words, you are subconsciously aware that you are at Heaven’s – or Hell’s Gate – and so the hymns are an attempt to grasp for an anchor.

As she struggles to break through, Karanja can be comforted by the fact that her customers – like those who go to church – do so for some spiritual uplifting. And there’s always a market for that.

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