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Drinkable innovation: Sudanese beer

New brewery is major industrial advance for southern Sudan.

JUBA, Sudan — In July southern Sudan will celebrate its independence from the North and the freedom of its people to do what they want. And that includes drinking beer.

For 22 years alcohol was a casualty of Sudan's civil war between the Christian South and the Muslim North where booze was forbidden.

As soon as the peace accord came into effect in January 2005, trucks crossed the border from Uganda into southern Sudan carrying crates of Bell, Club and Nile Special, all popular Ugandan lagers sold in half-liter brown bottles.

Then in May 2009 Southern Sudan Beverages Limited (SSBL), a subsidiary of the global drinks giant SABMiller, opened Sudan’s first and only brewery outside the southern capital Juba to supply an expanding and thirsty local market.

It was an innovative move, not only because an alcoholic beer was being produced in Sudan, but also because there is so little manufacturing in southern Sudan.

“Until we started building here these guys hadn’t seen anything industrial before,” said Ian Alsworth-Elvey, SSBL’s managing director.

The brewery is as alien as anything that has landed in Juba, a sprawling little city developing in rapid fits and starts as a result of the investment rush that followed peace in 2005.

There is no reliable power here so rows of huge generators chug away 24 hours a day. Vast containers hold gallons of water pumped out of the Nile River three miles away and purified before being added to barley, sugar and yeast imported by truck from Kenya.

Inside a hangar-sized warehouse are thousands of 110-pound sacks of malted barley, silver pipes snaking around silos and conveyor belts packed with recycled bottles being filled with freshly brewed beer.

Each day the brewery churns out 150,000 bottles of beer — “It’s hot out there, yah, people get thirsty!” said Alsworth-Elvey — but it is capable of producing four times that amount and with independence celebrations approaching that greater capacity will be useful.

SABMiller invested $51 million in the plant, making it one of the largest single investments in southern Sudan outside the oil or telecoms industries.

“SABMiller is particularly strong in emerging markets and we have a better appetite for risk than most of the other brewing companies,” said Alsworth-Elvey. “We recognized that if we got in here first we would have a big advantage. If it was a race, we wanted to win it.”

Currently the brewery employs 283 Sudanese workers but Alsworth-Elvey reckons that another 5,000 or so earn a living off the brewery by working as vendors or distributors.