Southern Sudan goes its own way with first brewery

Inside Southern Sudan's first brewery

As Southern Sudan prepares for January's referendum on whether to secede from the largely Muslim north, life in the autonomous region already feels very different. For example, it now has a large, modern brewery, as the BBC's Will Ross reports.

On the edge of Juba is a very rare sight in south Sudan - an industrial plant.

Apart from the investments in oil fields, this brewery dwarfs any other projects in the hugely undeveloped south of Sudan.

Inside, thousands of brown bottles clink their way along a conveyor belt and then the crates of White Bull and Nile Special are swiftly loaded onto waiting trucks.

Sudan finally has its own beer which sells for 3 Sudanese pounds, slightly over $1 (£0.80), for a half-litre bottle.

It seems the Sudanese are thirsty - the plant should soon be producing 35m litres a year.

The introduction of Sharia or Islamic law by the Khartoum government in 1983 and the war that raged for decades between the government forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army had ensured Southern Sudan was brewery-less.

Communion wine

The punishment for getting caught with alcohol when the Islamic north was in charge was several dozen lashes.

In those days communion wine had to be brought in under diplomatic privileges by the Nuncio (the Vatican ambassador) and shared out amongst the parishes and dioceses.

It did not always reach the churches, however, as missionaries occasionally had their wine confiscated when they travelled around the south by air.

The River Nile in Juba Being close to the River Nile is an ideal location for a brewery

After the peace deal was signed in 2005, Sharia no longer applied to the south, where most people are Christian or follow traditional beliefs.

The only commercially brewed beer came in from Uganda or Kenya.

Then the London-based company, SABMiller, decided to take the leap. It set up Southern Sudan Beverages Ltd (SSBL) and has so far invested around $50m (£31.3m) - the first bottle coming off the production line in May 2009.

The hurdles that had to be overcome were enormous.

Bumpy road

Start Quote

Diana Susu Hassan

We knew it was our destiny... It's a long-term struggle that the Southern Sudanese for so many years have been longing for and fighting for”

End Quote Diana Susu Hassan SSBL quality control

After shipping two second hand breweries, which SABMiller had bought up in Malta and Bulgaria, everything then had to be trucked in from the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

"The road trip was close to 3,000km (1,800 miles) on arguably the worst roads in Africa and we chose to do it in the rainy season so the logistics were challenging to say the least," said Ian Alsworth-Elvey, SSBL's managing director.

Seeing as beer is more than 90% water, being situated close to the wide River Nile was an ideal location.

The malted barley, hops and yeast are all imported but there are plans to team up with Sudanese farmers and start brewing with cassava.

The organisation, Farm Africa, hopes this will help 2,000 subsistence farmers turn the corner and become producers of cash crops.

If Southern Sudan becomes a new country after January's referendum on independence, Juba will be a brand new capital.

At present SSBL sells most of its beer in Juba but it is trying to roll the products out across the south - easier said than done.

Map locator

There are just over 50km of tarred roads in the entire south and given the roads turn into quagmires when it rains, it can take up to two weeks for a truck to deliver.

In addition the presence of international organisations pushes up the price demanded by the trucking companies.

"The transport rates are skewed by the movement of food by NGOs [non-governmental organisations] who pay exorbitant rates," said Mr Alsworth-Elvey.

"In the rest of East Africa you might pay 15 US cents per tonne per kilometre. Here in Southern Sudan it is around 33 US cents."

Good neighbours?

Almost all the workers are from the south.

Start Quote

Workers at the SSBL's plant in Juba

We may have a little bit of posturing coming up to the referendum but after that it will be an amicable divorce”

End Quote Ian Alsworth-Elvey SSBL's head

Keeping an eye on everything in the quality control laboratory is Diana Susu Hassan. Because of the war, she was exiled in the chilly UK for 19 years.

"I left Sudan aged nine. I remember at school in London I had problems because my English was not up to standard and every physical education lesson was outside in the cold."

After a chemical engineering degree at Bradford University and the end of the war, she could finally returned home.

"We knew it was our destiny," said Ms Hassan who now looks forward to the referendum on independence.

"We knew being in the UK was short term but we weren't too sure how long it would take.

"It's a long-term struggle that the Southern Sudanese for so many years have been longing for and fighting for.

"Being an independent state will help a great deal. We are hoping more investors will come to give more opportunities to Southern Sudanese to work."

The potential splitting up of Sudan has increased the tension between the north and south.

Party Fridays

Some predict a bumpy road ahead. And SSBL's investment needs stability.

A woman making kwete in Juba Brown bubbling beer known as kwete fuels Juba on a Friday afternoon

"I don't think anything untoward is going to happen," said Mr Alsworth-Elvey.

"We may have a little bit of posturing coming up to the referendum but after that it will be an amicable divorce, if that is what happens, and things will only improve.

"Both parties have to be good neighbours because they are currently very dependent on each other."

Back in town I saw a reminder that although Sharia may have temporarily halted any legal brewing, alcohol has always been available here.

A party was in full swing in the street. Dozens of Mundari people were dancing - jumping up and down on the spot to be precise.

What was the occasion I wondered?

"It is Friday afternoon," was the simple response. "We do this every Friday."

Two huge oil drums full of brown bubbling stodge were the fuel that had lit this street party.

The Southern Sudanese have been making this local beer, known as kwete, from maize and other crops for generations.

But now they have a choice: Barrel or bottle, brown or clear?

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