Beer and spirits have a long history of turning crops into currency for poor farmers. America’s own frontier farmers distilled corn into whiskey as insurance against hard times. Now a brewing company in Africa, SABMiller, has a similar idea for Africa’s subsistence farmers: Turning cassava into beer under the brand Impala Lager.
While cassava is one of the most widely grown crops across Africa, it’s hardly commercialized. The starchy root, similar to an elongated sweet potato, yields a carbohydrate rich flour and its leaves contain about the same amount of protein as an egg. Yet farmers are often left holding the bag at the end of the growing season, literally. Many cannot find a commercial market for the tubers, and only sell a harvest every few weeks.
SABMiller (whose motto is "Making a Difference Through Beer") has seized on this abundance to create a market for small farmers in Mozambique and capture some of the huge informal, unregulated alcohol estimated to be about four times larger than the regulated market.
"By using locally-sourced raw materials, we are able to create high-quality, affordable products for consumers who would otherwise be drinking informal or illicit alcohol," says Mark Bowman, managing director of SABMiller Africa on the firm’s website. Ultimately, the brewer hopes to create a "portfolio of high-quality, affordable beers made using locally-sourced raw materials for lower income consumers in Africa."
SABMiller had to overcome two challenges to make cassava beer: finding the right process to brew the root, and collecting all the tubers from distant farmers (the company is working with the Dutch Agricultural Development and Trading Company to accomplish the latter). Now that that’s been worked out, SABMiller plans to sell its first batches of beer at a discount (the government has agreed to reduce taxes on the brew given its development benefits). The first year of Impala production should consume about 40,000 tonnes of raw cassava, reportedly creating new employment for at least 1,500 smallholder farmers and their families.
But an important caveat may be that rising cassava demand could push up prices on a staple food for the poor. The world has already seen what biofuel demand can do to food prices around the world. Even cassava, which is a major biofuel feedstock for China, has seen rocketing prices as China switched to the cheaper starch for its fuel.
For now, SABMiller notes that Mozambican farmers could grow a healthy surplus of cassava relative to domestic consumption. Today’s greatest need may be giving poor farmers a better way to live.