When Dutch brewer Heineken and British drinks group Diageo teamed up with a non-profit organisation to help African farmers grow sorghum
, little did they realise that their social experiment would turn into a sustainable business.
Heineken and Diageo, which owns the stout brand Guinness, started work with Brussels-based European Co-operative for Rural Development more than a year ago on a five-year project to encourage farmers to produce sorghum in Ghana and Sierra Leone.
For both companies, which make beer as well as non-alcoholic drinks from malted barley
throughout Africa, the project was a chance to develop local sources of agricultural raw materials and also to help local economies.
Importing barley more expensive than ever
Both companies have been importing barley into many of the African countries - the grain traditionally used to brew beer - to make their drinks. Although barley is one of the world's most common grains, it is not widely grown in Africa since it grows best in countries with cooler climates such as Russia and Canada.
But transportation costs and the rocketing price of malting barley
, because of strong global demand, have made importing barley to Africa more expensive than ever. Hence the appeal
of making beer with locally produced grains such as sorghum.
Henk Knipscheer, managing director of Eucord, says the rise in malting barley prices was not anticipated
by the companies when they became involved in the project: "What started as a social responsibility project is now commercially rather attractive."
Although African farmers have long grown sorghum, a hardy crop
that grows easily in poor soils and is used in porridge and beer, big brewers such as Heineken and Diageo have been reluctant to become reliant on local farmers. They were unsure whether farmers could produce the right variety, and whether they could ensure consistent supply
The project, which has received some $2.8m in funding from the Common Fund for Commodities - a branch of the United Nations - as well as Heineken and Diageo, aims to establish a sustainable production chain so the companies can rely on getting supplies from local farmers. It also aims to show farmers that there is a long-term future in growing sorghum. "Farmers need to build confidence that the market is there," Mr Knipscheer says.
Eucord has been training farmers in cultivation methods aimed at increasing yields
and arranging access to finance so they can buy seeds and fertilisers
. It has also organised the farmers into groups since grain traders do not like buying grain from individual farmers.
Heineken delighted with results
In Ghana, where some 1,000 farmers are involved in the project, the group surpassed
its initial target of 800 tonnes of sorghum by 100 tonnes at the end of the first growing season. Sierra Leone had 2,000 farmers in the project but produced only 40 tonnes. However, this year Sierra Leone expects to produce 150 tonnes.
Heineken is delighted
with the results of the project, particularly in Sierra Leone, where expectations had been lower. Thomas de Man, Heineken's regional president for Africa and the Middle East, says: "You see an economy growing around farming."
Heineken first made beer with sorghum in Nigeria in the early 1990s after the country banned imports of malt barley, and two years ago it started building a sorghum malting plant
in Nigeria. The plant will be up and running shortly.
It now makes beer wholly or partly with sorghum in five African countries - Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Burundi - selling it under brands such as Star or Gulder, and sees potential for making beer with sorghum in other parts of Africa and possibly on other continents.