Finally some good news coming from one of the basket cases that cling like diseased sucker fish to what we laughingly call our borders. SABMiller, the company we turn to in times of great joy and terrible sadness, has begun producing cassava-based beer in Mozambique. Not long ago, I drove from Kosi Bay to Inhambane and I couldn’t help thinking, as I raced through one poverty-stricken village after another, the one thing this country is crying out for is cheap beer made from a starchy, tuberous root.
Had I a smidgen of entrepreneurial blood in my collapsed veins, I would have devised a way of giving Mozambicans what they really needed – a means of getting gevrotteled every day without having to sell off their youngest to pay the bar bill.
I have only ever been on nodding terms with the cassava. Okay, that’s not strictly true. I wouldn’t recognise a cassava if it jumped up and bit me in the face. But I do know that cassava is the most common of vegetables in many parts of Africa. It practically stands on the side of the road lifting its skirts and shouting, “Take me home, sailor! Take me home and do with me what you will!”
But there is a dark side to the unrefined cassava. During my extensive research for this column, I stumbled upon a startling piece of information: “Improper preparation of cassava can leave enough residual cyanide to cause acute cyanide intoxication and goiters, and has been linked to ataxia or partial paralysis.”
You may say that Mozambique itself suffers from partial paralysis, but that is largely the result of a unique work ethic whereby the labourers spend most of their day looking for shade. I don’t know what a goiter is, but it sounds unpleasant. Luckily, beer has been known to resolve all manner of physical and political complaints. For instance, Nelson Mandela only agreed to be released from prison once SA Breweries promised to stop making that godawful Lion Lager.
Of course, the notion of brewing beer at home from whatever happens to be at hand is not a new one. My own father set up some sort of illegal still in the kaya when I was growing up. It ended badly. I don’t know what he was using. Not cassava, that’s for sure. Nitrogen tetroxide, perhaps. While other kids took a day off school with the flu, my mother phoned the headmaster and said: “Ben won’t make it to class next month. He’s suffering from a nasty exothermic chemical reaction.”
The point, if there even is one, is that while Africa’s home brew market has been around for thousands of years, it has never been commercially exploited. Until now. Here’s Mark Bowman, managing director of SABMiller’s African operations: “We estimate that the volume of the informal, unregulated alcohol market across Africa could be up to four times that of the formal market.”
Because I live in the police state of Cape Town, I expected the next sentence to read: “This is a shocking indictment of Africa’s dependency on alcohol and urgent steps must be taken to clamp down on …” Cape Town isn’t really a police state, it’s more of a nanny state. Truth be told, it’s a bit of both. Helen Zille is Nanny Cop-in-Chief. She will press you to her bosom and let you suckle on her policies, and then, once she is covered in lickspittle, she will knee you in the balls and go off to find a fresh sycophant.
What Mark Bowman is saying is that for every African who gets his dop over the counter, there are another four making moonshine from pineapples, old tyres, turpentine and the pelvic bones of dead child soldiers.
SABMiller Africa’s brainstorming session:
“The peasants are carousing and we’re not making any money from it. How do we get in?”
“Let’s make beer from something they’ve already got.”
“Great idea. What do they have in the ground?”
“Yeah! ‘Drink this – you’ll be blown away’.”
“Nah, too honest. How about cassava?”
And lo, Impala Cerveja was born. Marginally more appealing than Goiter Especial, I suppose.
Bowman said since the product was aimed at the rural areas, SABMiller wanted people to “gravitate into what is highly aspirational for them”. Too damn right. When it comes to giving the impoverished masses a leg-up, don’t offer them an entry-level job when what they really want is an entry-level beer.
In the meantime, the company will need 40-thousand tons of raw cassava a year. Every camponês with a spare tropical root in his trousers is going to want a piece of the action. I expect it will start with machete fights at dawn and steadily progress to civil war.
This time, though, everyone will be wasted on dangerously cheap Impala. But since they are essentially drinking their staple food, they won’t have the energy to chop each other’s heads off. They’ll just stand there, swaying in the breeze and swearing in Portuguese, then abruptly lie down in the middle of the road. My kind of country.
Viva SABMiller, viva. Making Mozambicans legless, one man at a time.