How to Brew an Economy

Cameroon is located in western Africa, barely bordering the Atlantic Ocean to its south. Like many African nations, it struggles economically; perhaps as many as a quarter of its 24 million people live on less than the equivalent of $2 per day. There’s a wide divide, economically, between urban and rural families as well, with city dwellers earning more than their agrarian counterparts. But in general, things are looking up. According to the World Bank, Cameroon’s GDP has quadrupled over the last two decades, school enrollment is up 25%, and life expectancy has gone up from 50 years to nearly 60.

And as the country inches its way toward prosperity, something else has emerged: beer. A generation ago, beer wasn’t easy to find in Cameroon; now, the nation regularly imports Guinness, Amstel, and many other brands, and also has a fledgling brewing industry of its own. In fact, the national football team (soccer, for us Americans) is sponsored by a Cameroon brewery. 

But sixteen years ago, beer brands were still trying to establish a foothold among the nation’s consumers. And as a result, for a brief moment, beer was worth more than the money used to buy it.

At some point in 2005, one of the local brewing companies — either Manyan or Mützig — adopted an idea commonly found in the beverage industry — they ran a contest powered by the bottoms of their bottle caps. To win, all you needed to do was buy a beer, take off the cap, and look at its underside. Some caps were winners, some caps were losers, but either way, you have a beer to drink. Simple, straightforward, and, again, common. And importantly, easily replicable. It’s not clear which beer company was the first to try this in Cameroon, but it is clear that they were not the last. As the summer arrived, both Manyan and Mutzig were running bottle cap promotions — and they were in a race to the bottle cap bottom. One brand would increase the quality of prizes, promising cell phones and even cars. The other would respond in kind. And then, they increased the odds of winning. After a while, winning a prize was simply a given; as the UPI reported, “almost every $1 bottle of beer has a winning cap, with the smallest prize being another bottle.”

While that created a spike in rampant drinking and alcohol abuse — free beer tends to do that — it also created a strange secondary effect. Everyone has their limits, and it was virtually impossible to end up without a winning beer cap before you were done for the night. And your luck wasn’t quite ready to run out. As local journalist Martin Etonge explained to the BBC, “a bottle of beer costs about $1 and that’s just over the cost of a township taxi drop.” It was a perfect confluence of events: you could buy a beer or two, drink the night away for free, and then — just as you were too drunk to safely get yourself home — use that last beer cap as payment for a cab ride. The cab driver came out ahead, too, as the price of a beer was greater than what he or she would have earned otherwise, and it also gave them a chance to win a new phone or better. Beer bottle caps became a de facto taxi token.

And then, they became a get out of jail free card. Taxi drivers, by virtue of their jobs, are understandably more likely to encounter traffic police than most others do, and that’s as true in Cameroon’s cities as it is in any other urban environment. Per Etonge, cabbies saw the beer caps as an opportunity to pave their way toward a better, more lax relationship with some of the officers: “taxi drivers are also using the caps in their fishy deals with the traffic police, “he told the BBC; “they can get off by giving one or two caps to the officers.”

It’s not clear how or when the beer promotions ended, but it’s pretty clear why they ended — there was simply no way for either company to keep on giving away beer if they wanted to stay in business. (And besides, it’s probably a bad idea to be the business that fuels both rampant alcohol abuse and public corruption.) The beer bottle bonanza burned out at some point. But both breweries seem to have fared just fine — at least according to Rate Beer’s list of Cameroon’s most popular beers. Mützig is the nation’s fourth-best rated and while Manyan doesn’t make the list, ’33 Export and Castel appear at #3 and #10 respectively, and both are made by the brewer of Manyan.

Bonus fact: During the Great Depression, many Americans suddenly and surprisingly found themselves wondering where their next meal would come from. The people then living in Cameroon were already worse off, but despite living in abject poverty at the time, at least one community wanted to help. As the New York Times reported, they collected pennies in order to make a gift to those suffering half a world away. The total amount: $3.77 — or about $60 today, accounting for inflation. A missionary working with the community wrote a letter to accompany the gift, reading “as actual money, this sum is small, but as you well know the conditions out here and what such a sum of money means here, the gift is really large.”

From the Archives: The Lake That Killed Its Neighbors: A story from Cameroon.