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Give me ‘Sapele water!’


The story is told of a woman in Sapele, who was a dealer in locally made gin, popularly called Ogogoro. This was during colonial rule when the sale and consumption of locally made gin was prohibited. The woman was arrested and charged to court. During her trial, her counsel argued that his client had been wrongly accused of selling illicit gin while what she was actually selling was ordinary water. And to prove it, the counsel asked the judge to drink some of it. As the judge drank, his facial expression changed. He quickly held himself together and wore a straight face. Since he couldn’t possible admit consuming illicit gin, he agreed it was ordinary water. He then asked the prosecution counsel to drink as well, which he did. Of course, neither would confess to drinking illicit gin in court for that was a criminal offense! The woman was acquitted!

The history of Ogogoro underscores the economic sabotage the British colonialists perpetrated against our people. While the production and consumption of Ogogoro was outlawed, their brands of gin was being imported and sold in the country. The consequence of this is a colonial hangover which has ingrained in our minds the negative perception of Ogogoro as an illegal, inferior, and forbidden drink. Meanwhile, according to a feature published in Vanguard in September 2014, Ogogoro is even outlawed in some states in Nigeria, while Vodka and Whiskey are not included on that prohibition list. This is just how far reaching our colonial hangover has been.

Over the years, Ogogoro has carried with it a negative perception. It is produced and sold cheaply, which naturally makes it attractive to those who cannot afford the imported brands of spirits. The implication of this is that Ogogoro is perceived as a drink of poor people. It has poverty written all over it. The negative perception has arrested the development of this local product into national brands. Meanwhile, we have some home grown brands of spirits which have done very well in the market. Some of them have positioned themselves as local equivalents of foreign brands. These include the popular aromatic schnapps and dry gin. The challenge for them however is that they have limited their potential for growth by positioning themselves as locally made equivalents of foreign brands. This comes with a perception that they are inferior. So while they may be doing well locally, they lack the potential for succeeding internationally.

As my people wallowed in their Ogogoro-induced state of stupor and slumber, a game changer from Ghana suddenly shocked them awake. Enter Alomo Bitters! A company called Kasapreko decided to take this popular Ogogoro and blend it with some medicinal herbs and spices. This is not a new thing. For ages, our people had soaked medicinal herbs in Ogogoro, with a firm belief in its health benefits. Kasapreko simply refined this practice, created a brand from it and positioned Alomo as a drink with health benefits. This result has been phenomenal. Finally, you have a magical drink, which combines the full bodied flavour of gin or vodka, with the unique bite that those secret herbs and spices give. Finally, you have a proudly African brand of spirit. It is unique and authentic. Kasapreko has not been able to keep up with demand. Finally, in spite of all the globally acclaimed brands of gin, vodka and whiskey abundantly available in the United Kingdom, there is an African brand of spirit that is in high demand there. Alomo Bitters.

Nigeria is by far the largest market for Alomo Bitters in West Africa, while the drink has become popular among Africans in diaspora. Taking a cue from Alomo and feeling threatened by its popularity, our breweries have developed their own variants. Where were they, when Alomo was created? In our usual band wagon copycat way, we have suddenly flooded the market with a multitude of these drinks. Whither lies our creativity and resourcefulness?

Although the colonialists left almost 60 years ago, we have refused to free ourselves from economic colonialism. Our political class simply assumed the oppressive imperialism of the British. They continued to see inferiority in everything Nigerian. Their incurable ignorance and false sense of encyclopaedic knowledge is such that their minds are blocked impenetrably and most attempts to infuse superior knowledge meets with unbreakable resistance. This is why our leaders have the highest number of advisers known to man, yet they fail woefully in transforming our nation from third world to second. If you go to Delta, you will still find those poor people in Sapele, making Ogogoro in the same way their forefathers did. Meanwhile, what the British did with their spirits is to retain the essential elements of tradition while repackaging and repositioning the product to align with the tastes and desires of modern man. Why haven’t we repositioned our Ogogoro and branded it to appeal to an international market? After all, many say this Ogogoro doesn’t taste much different from vodka which the Russians have successfully sold to the rest of the world.

If we have had visionary leadership, Delta State would have become a major industrial hub for home grown spirits, with hundreds of thousands of jobs created and millions of USD flowing into the country in export proceeds. Instead, we are now the biggest market for a Ghanaian brand of spirit! While our breweries are busy selling their multitude of ‘me too’ products, I believe this is a wake-up call to our entrepreneurs. We must look inwards for opportunities to create original brands from our vast variety of cultural assets. Most successful brands draw their strength from their origin. And not even ‘Orijin Bitters’ can rightfully claim to be original. We must think original and develop authentic proudly African brands that will hold their own in the international market, because they are different and uniquely African. As the biggest African nation that others look up to, we should live up to our titanic stature and do things others want to copy. In this Ogogoro business, seeing Ghana take the lead makes me feel tipsy!

• Muyiwa Kayode is CEO at USP Brand Management and author, The Seven Dimensions of Branding. Brand Nation is a platform for promoting national development based on the universal principles of branding.

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