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Beer, sociabilityand masculinity: SAB’s drive for female black drinkers

May 29, 2014

SABMiller is working with 6,000 pub owners, giving advice and sometimes funds to improve bars from the informal shebeens of apartheid to legal, safe taverns.

To women to drink more at her pub, Susan Mathane is starting in the toilet.

The South African entrepreneur is working with SABMiller to give her bar — Susan’s Place in Tembisa — a facelift.

Last year, she added niceties including extra couches, drinking glasses, a thatched roof and a pristine ladies toilet, moves meant to transform her tavern into a place where women would want to drop in and stay awhile.

Despite controlling about 90% of the South African market, where it first sold beer to thirsty miners more than a century ago, the world’s second-largest brewer struggled to grow last year amid growing inflation and rising competition from Heineken and Diageo.

So it’s working with 6,000 pub owners like Ms Mathane, giving advice and sometimes funds to improve bars from the informal shebeens of apartheid to legal, safe taverns — that happen to serve mostly SABMiller beer.

The brewer gets much of its revenue from emerging markets, making it both vulnerable to economic busts and well placed to benefit from the booms.

In South Africa, a weakening rand and an unemployment rate hovering at about 25% led the company to narrow its profit forecast in March.

“With demand being weak, the aim will be to recover market-share losses,” said Wynand van Zyl, an analyst at Macquarie Group. “There is certainly opportunity to develop segments like female sales and drinking occasions in South Africa.”

Creating an environment where women feel comfortable gives the company more access to the 17million South African women of drinking age.

At her pub, sales are up 20% since Ms Mathane made the changes, including hiring a regular toilet cleaner in August.

She’s selling more of SABMiller’s Flying Fish, a citrus-flavoured beer, and Castle Lite, drinks preferred by the women who visit.

“We come here because Susan keeps improving this place. It’s safe and the toilets are very clean,” said 19-year-old Kgomotso Mbatha.

Instead of meeting her friend for a bit of gossip and cup of tea at home, the two woman were whiling away the afternoon over a Brutal Fruit Mango-Goji beer and a Flying Fish, and planned to return later with more friends.

While SABMiller sells beer in more than 75 markets across the world, the country it once called home is still the second-biggest profit provider after Colombia, and generates about $5-billion in annual revenue.

With lager volume flat in the most recent quarter, SABMiller was fighting back by investing in retail, said managing director Mauricio Leyva.

“We’ll continue to gain share and protect our territory,” Mr Leyva said. “When growth comes in, we’ll be two steps ahead.”

For many, drinking legally at all in Tembisa is a relatively recent act. The township was founded in 1957 as black people were evicted from Johannesburg under the apartheid plan to separate black and white South Africans. During the apartheid era, black people were not allowed to buy clear or full-strength beer, leading to the emergence of illegal bars known as shebeens.

The makeshift bars — sometimes no more than a couple of plastic chairs in proprietors’ front rooms with no public toilets at all, never mind private ladies stalls — became a cornerstone of South Africa’s drinking culture. Their unregulated status made them dangerous by nature in a country with a murder rate six times that of the US.

That and a high proportion of devoutly religious people made South African women less likely to drink.

Today, about half of the nation abstains, compared with a global average of 35%. Bringing that total closer to the international figure depends on women taking up drinking, Mr Leyva said.

As South Africa’s black middle class of about 4.2-million grows, more taverns have opened, and many illegal shebeens have become licensed. SABMiller plans to spend about R52m this year on the campaign to improve them. Already, it has painted the walls in the red of the Castle label or the green of Castle Lite. Owners tiled toilets, and mirrors were added.

“Their relationship with trade is very important,” said Chris Wickham, an analyst at Oriel Securities in London.

“What SAB’s consistently demonstrated is that they’re very strong and adept with the distribution system, and it helps them maintain share.”

To get more women into the fold, SABMiller has been creating products that have a slightly sweeter skew and providing glasses because many women do not like drinking from bottles, Mr Leyva said.

Still, Ms Mbatha is hoping the company does not attract too many women. Part of the allure of Susan’s for her is knowing she would not bump into her mother there. The older women in her community still do not often drink in public.

• This article was first published in Sunday Times: Business Times

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