Spoiled by War: South Sudan Loses its First and Only Brewery

Beer Without Borders by | Mar 2016 | Issue #110
Photo by Jason Patinkin

It’s last call for White Bull, South Sudan’s favorite beer. The country’s only brewery announced it will stop producing this month amid a civil war that has ruined the nation’s economy. It’s a loss for South Sudanese drinkers who have come to enjoy the sweet, 5 percent lager, but it’s also a blow to this young nation’s pride.

Nicknamed “The Taste of Progress,” White Bull once symbolized the great hopes for South Sudan. After a 22-year civil war that killed millions came to an end in 2005, the country gained independence six years later from the alcohol-banning Islamist government in Sudan’s north.

In 2009, SABMiller opened South Sudan Beverages Limited (SSBL) in the southern capital of Juba and released the first batch of White Bull. The beer, named for the long-horned Ankole cattle prized by South Sudanese families, captured the mood of citizens who could finally say they weren’t ruled by outsiders.

“I was proud. I was just proud,” says Daniel Wori, who worked in the brewery’s distribution department, of his first sip of White Bull in those heady days. “I thought, now we are drinking our own.”

But the taste of progress has turned bitter. South Sudan fell back into civil war in 2013 in a conflict that has divided southerners by tribe. The war has also caused rampant inflation of the South Sudanese Pound because fighting has shut down oil facilities that the government depends on for more than 90 percent of its revenue. And since landlocked South Sudan imports every brewing ingredient besides Nile water, SSBL can’t afford to keep producing.

“There is currently an acute shortage of access to foreign exchange in South Sudan which means that our business there, South Sudan Beverages Limited, has been unable to buy raw materials,” explains a spokesman from SABMiller. “As a result, SSBL has had to take the difficult decision to start preparing to wind down production operations once its existing inventory of ingredients runs out.”

Losing White Bull is a sign of how far South Sudan has strayed from the great expectations of independence, when people of all tribes clinked stubby brown bottles in celebration. The beer was steeped in patriotism, with the labels, green like the lush countryside, emblazoned with the yellow star of South Sudan’s national flag.

“I just feel good seeing the green label, that head of the cattle,” says Wori, who lost his job in the first round of cost-cutting layoffs in August 2015. “When it’s missing in the market, I feel like we are failing completely.”

Closing SSBL will be a blow to South Sudan’s economy, too, because according to Juba University economics professor Marial Awou Yol, the brewery is the country’s only factory aside from a few water bottling plants. SABMiller says 176 more jobs will be lost in March, on top of thousands of others affected along the value chain, a huge number in a country where the World Bank says 85 percent of the population doesn’t receive a paycheck.

“We don’t have a well developed industrial sector, a well developed agricultural sector, even the service sector,” says Yol. “The brewery is a well established institution in the economy. Its closure can send negative waves around the country.”

Nowhere will those negative waves be felt stronger than in Hai Jondoru, the neighborhood on Juba’s dusty outskirts where SSBL set up shop. “Almost every family in Hai Jondoru has at least one member working at the brewery; if not a permanent staff, at least a casual worker,” says Emmanuel Momo, who worked on the production line washing, capping and labeling bottles of White Bull until the August layoffs.

Momo, sipping another SSBL lager called Club in a bamboo-walled bar outside the brewery, landed his job in 2010. Like many employees, he had no prior brewing experience and had to be trained to operate SSBL’s state-of-the-art equipment. “I enjoyed the work … I got more skills, I got more knowledge,” he says. “If it was not because of the current crisis I would be working with them.”

Momo earned decent money, too, with a salary of 1,700 South Sudanese Pounds, or about $500, per month, a solid wage in the impoverished nation. The war changed all that. By August 2015, 1,700 SSP was worth just over $100. Today, it’s closer to $60.

One thing that hasn’t diminished is White Bull’s ability to unite South Sudanese citizens. The ethnic killings, some of which took place a few kilometers from the brewery, had no effect on the shop floor, Momo says. “We have Dinka, we have Nuer, Acholi, Ma’adi,” he says of his colleagues’ ethnicities on the production line. “There was nothing like tribalism inside there. Everyone worked as a family.”

SABMiller claims it is mothballing the factory and will use it as a depot for imported Ugandan beer, leaving open the possibility of restarting production if the economy improves. But that will require peace, which has remained elusive for almost three years. If South Sudan achieves that, perhaps they will raise bottles of White Bull once again.