• Sunday, July 14, 2024
businessday logo

BusinessDay

SABMiller’s Hero taps into Biafra nostalgia

businessday-icon

At the Estate Sports Club in Onitsha, men troop up to the open-air bar and order a bot¬tle of ‘Oh Mpa’, the local name for SABMiller Plc’s Hero beer.

Oh Mpa means ‘Oh Fa¬ther’ in Igbo, and is widely re¬garded as referring to the late Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu, who led a failed at¬tempt to secede from Nigeria in the 1960s and set up an independent nation of Biafra that sparked a 30-month civil war. With its Hero bottles bearing the rising sun that appeared on the Biafran flag, SABMiller is tapping into the area’s nationalism.

“While Ojukwu was alive, he was addressed as the hero of the Igbo race,” Okwudili Otti, a 54-year-old machine-parts importer, said as he sipped a Hero Lager in a group of middle-aged men sitting on plastic chairs and watching a soccer match on wall-mount¬ed television screens. “He was given that respect.”

Ojukwu died in Novem¬ber 2011 at the age of 78, and memories of him and the stillborn Biafra republic re¬main strong among the Igbo, one of the three biggest ethnic groups in Nigeria numbering more than 50 million.

It’s not simply nostalgia that SABMiller is appealing to today, said Emeka Uzoatu, a 51-year-old seller of agricul¬tural tools and chainsaws and writer in Onitsha, a bustling market town on the eastern bank of the Niger River.

“It’s not really the older people who drink Hero, it’s the younger ones,” he said at his office on Port Harcourt Road. “They didn’t experi¬ence Biafra and they like to hear about it.”

While London-based SABMiller says the presen¬tation of Hero beer carries no political motivation, it’s aiming to create a “local feel” for its beverage.

“Hero was developed as a result of deep local con¬sumer insight and positive associations with the Igbo tribe,” the company said in a March 13 e-mailed response to questions. “There is no historic or political motiva¬tion behind the brand and it is in no way designed to represent a political view.”

In response to robust de¬mand for Hero Lager and other drinks, SABMiller plans to invest $110 million to tri¬ple its output capacity at the 18-month-old Onitsha brew¬ery to 2.1 million hectoliters a year, the company said in a statement on January 23.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country with about 170 million people, is the continent’s second-largest beer market after South Africa, growing at an annual volume of 6 percent, according to SABMiller.

The company, which has brewing or beverage inter¬ests in 32 African countries, entered the Nigerian market in 2009 with the purchase of controlling interests in Pabod Breweries, based in the Southern oil hub of Port Harcourt. It later bought International Breweries Plc, which is based in the South Western town of Ilesh.

SABMiller is competing in Africa’s top oil producer with rivals including Diageo Plc, which has sold more Guinness in Nigeria than in the beer’s native Ireland since 2007, and Heineken NV, which controls Nigeria Breweries Plc (NB), the coun¬try’s biggest brewer.

While the two biggest brewers in Nigeria, Heineken BV’s unit Nigerian Breweries Plc and Diageo Plc’s Guinness Nigeria Plc, have experienced slower growth because of higher fuel prices and de¬pressed consumer income since 2012, SABMiller is push¬ing lower-cost products, ac¬cording to industry analysts. Hero is as much as 40 percent cheaper than rival lagers.

“SABMiller’s approach of going down the price ladder widened their revenue base given the subdued state of consumer incomes over the last two years,” said Adewale Okunriboye, an analyst cov¬ering the industry at Assets Resource Management Ltd.

In Onitsha, Nigerian Breweries last year bought Life Breweries Ltd., and is pushing the Life beer brand to compete with Hero.

“Regional tastes, loyal¬ties and traditions may in¬spire the growth of regional brands which the big brew¬ers will eventually have to embrace to remain com¬petitive,” Efemena Esalomi, analyst at Vetiva Capital Management Ltd.

Otti, dressed in a polo shirt and shorts, appeared to agree with that analysis.

“We needed a beer brand that we could trust, that we could call our own,” Otti said as he raised his glass to his lips for a gulp. “This is ours; ours is ours!”