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Beer Can Be a Win-Win for Jobs and Water in Sub-Saharan Africa

If early investments are made in industrial water efficiency, beer can be a win-win for jobs and water sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa.

The beer industry in sub-Saharan Africa has brought an influx of desperately needed jobs and capital to the region. This private investment and market growth can deliver the type of progress the international-development field has been working towards for decade and will be increasingly vital for meeting development goals. Continued growth in the beer industry should be strongly encouraged in tandem with support for improved efficiency in industrial water use to address the rapid exhaustion of water resources caused by brewing beer. If early investments are made in industrial water efficiency, beer can be a win-win for jobs and water sustainability in sub-Saharan Africa.

Beer brands are steadily increasing their brewing facilities in sub-Saharan Africa. They are also increasing their investments in the region. For example, as of 2012, SABMiller planned to invest $2.5 billion in Africa. It has since been taken over by Anheuser-Busch InBev, which similarly plans to invest $150-200 million and create a $73 million fund to protect local industry in South Africa alone.

These developments are undoubtedly good news for job creation and capital inflows, but a roadblock lies in the 8-24 gallons of water required to brew just one pint of beer. The high volume of water required to brew beer is generating alarm over industry sustainability everywhere and sub-Saharan Africa is of particular concern. The region has been considered severely water-stressed since at least 2006, facing scarcity in both the quantity and quality of its water resources. In addition to problems of access, intensifying water scarcity has well-proven links to instability, such as intrastate violence and forced migration.

Governments everywhere will almost certainly respond to water supply crises by capping water use or raising the price of water, which poses serious problems for the longevity and profitability of the beer industry. In fact, the World Economic Forum named water supply crises as one of the top five risks to businesses. Beer brands need to find a way to overcome this obstacle, as Africa is expected to have the highest growth in beer sales globally; in just 10 years, the majority of new beer consumers will be in Africa. Protecting against water supply crises will be key for growth, stability and profitability in these new markets.

Beer brands in sub-Saharan Africa should prioritize investments in advanced brewing technology that dramatically improves their water use efficiency. This is especially important since regional manufacturing expansion strategies have tended to focus on buying rundown breweries and repairing them. Equipment improvements include immediate leak detection, waterless lubrication and decreasing boil times to reduce the amount of water needed compared to typical systems.

Breweries should also take advantage of technologies that allow producers to reuse wastewater from the brewing process. As these technologies deliver dramatic savings on water costs, companies will be able to recoup their water efficiency investments quickly while demonstrating valuable risk mitigation to shareholders.

Major water efficiency improvements in the African beer industry can deliver benefits beyond job growth and capital inflows for people in sub-Saharan African and the region’s economy. Insufficient investments in civil infrastructure and ineffective management of natural resources are primary sources of sub-Saharan Africa’s water stress. Water scarcity has become an increasingly hot-button political issue due to crippling droughts and persistent lack of access to water. However, politicians working under these constraints are reluctant to support conservation policies given that natural resources are so critical to economic growth. They are also reluctant to earmark funds for installing or improving municipal water infrastructure amid many other public service needs.

Politicians should capitalize on the existing momentum in the region and invest in improved water efficiency. The beer industry is proving the viability and positive cost-benefit ratios of investing in industrial-scale water efficiency equipment. This proof of concept is critical to catalyze public investment in civil water infrastructure and enforce effective natural resource policies. Despite well-founded environmental concerns, the beer industry stands to play an indispensable development role in sub-Saharan Africa and should be supported by the international development and conservation fields.

Beer companies and governments in sub-Saharan Africa should implement new technology now while brewing facilities are still expanding and water supplies have yet to be completely exhausted. Investing in water efficiency creates conditions that are more stable and viable for continued growth and development. The African beer industry and policymakers have the chance to be leaders in efficient water use for industrial scale processes, which will soon be in high global demand. The opportunity should not be missed.

*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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