Wednesday November 21 2012

Global distillers eye Africa as battle of the whiskies rages

By Mwaura Kimani

At the Speyside Cooperage in rural northern Scotland, six coopers hammer away in the workshop, each crafting at least one whisky cask every half hour. The musical ringing of metal on metal echoes around the shop.

Several miles away at the Cragganmore Distillery, home to the famous single malt, Laura Vernon, the plant manager paces across the factory floor and on to the huge old workshop where thousands of whisky casks are stacked against the walls.

The casks hold whiskies that may be consumed in Africa in the year 2030, upon maturity, at least if a dream of Diageo, which owns Cragganmore Distillery and nearly two-dozen others in Scotland, comes to pass.

Diageo, which owns East Africa’s biggest brewer East African Breweries Ltd (EABL) has embarked on a drive to push Scotch whisky sales in Africa, historically a weak spirits market.

In their latest research note, analysts at Deutsche Bank said Diageo’s iconic Scotch whisky brand Johnnie Walker is poised to become the next big success story for the company’s Africa operations.

Diageo recently sought the services of Ethiopian athletics legend Haile Gebrselassie and Cameroonian saxophone maestro Manu Dibango as brand ambassadors in local advertising campaigns for Johnnie Walker, a drink positioned for mature, upwardly-mobile men (Its slogan is “Keep Walking”).

Strong competition

For Diageo, the strategy is to grow its African spirits business beyond South Africa — its largest African spirits market for scotch (42 per cent of SA sales) and vodka (37 per cent).

But Diageo’s push into Africa is facing strong competition from other global spirits leaders like Pernod Ricard.

Pernod is the world’s second largest spirits company behind Diageo and the maker of whiskies like Jameson and Chivas Regal. The firm has established businesses in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Angola and Morocco in the past six months.

The two spirits giants are hoping to cash in on the growing middle-class in Africa to reduce their reliance on traditional markets like Europe and the US.

"We have barely scratched the surface of Africa’s Scotch whisky business,” said Benjamin Itty, the consumer planning director at Johnnie Walker during a media meeting in Aberdeen Scotland.


"Consumption growth is closely linked to gross domestic product growth, and enables consumers to trade up easily,” Mr Itty said.

Diageo and Pernod are the largest global players, with 3-4 per cent share each. According to analysts at Merrill Lynch, the wealth management division of Bank of America, the two companies are focusing on growing overall spirits consumption in emerging markets such as India, Africa and the Middle East — where per capita consumption remains low — and trading consumers up in China and Russia where international brands command less than 2 per cent share.

In June, Laurent Lacassagne, the chairman and CEO at Europe’s branch of Pernod Ricard, said the firm was expanding its direct presence in Africa by rolling out strategic spirits brands and seeking affiliates on the continent to help push up volumes.