Sweet beer, locally known as thobwa, has emerged as the number one threat to fizzy drinks in Chikhwawa district, with traders attributing its prolific rise on the market to the scarcity of soft drinks and pockets of hunger that have hit the district.
Thobwa is cheap and also famed for its nutritious value.
Malawi is experiencing an unprecedented scarcity of soft drinks, culminating into shelf-price anarchy on the market as retailers capitalize on the situation to reap off customers. In some instances, the cost of drinks is double or three times the official price.
The situation prompted Carlsberg Malawi's chief executive officer, Abel Chanje, to reiterate four weeks ago that the official price for bottled drinks remained unchanged at K50.
But, beginning January 1, the situation has changed following a hike in soft drinks' prices from K50 to K60 in a move product manufacturers say is aimed at meeting rising raw materials' costs.
A visit to Chikhwawa East Bank on Thursday revealed that from Thabwa, located at the Police Road Block, Mapelera, Nkhaze, Livunzu to Nkhate trading centres, refrigerators, some of them branded by product manufacturers, were filled with thobwa.
Mary Jamu, one of the women supplying thobwa to retailers in the East Bank told The Sunday Times that a thobwa brewing industry was emerging in such villages as Mwase, Muleza, Dzimphako, Khiwa, Kasokeza, Tsokwe, Mafumbi, Nkhondoyalero and Zidana—all of which are in T/A Makhwira's area.
"Women are making money out of thobwa. The advantage with thobwa-brewing is that it has been part of local tradition for a long time, does not need huge capital investments, and has a ready market.
"Thobwa has really revolutionized business, not only in East Bank but, in most parts of Chikhwawa," Jamu said.
This was confirmed in separate interviews by McKnight Sheki, director
for 'Imakhala Nthawi' grocery, and 'Monyadira Shop's' proprietor, Enock Monyadira. The traders said, on a good day, they sell as many as 300 Thobwa bottles at Nkhate Trading Centre. "Even though I started my business in 2002, I can safely say that never before has thobwa dominated the market as it does now. Each and every shop here is stocking the product, and we all seem to be making a fortune out of it. I think that the electrification of Nkhate
Trading Centre in 2006 has convinced many traders to buy refrigerators, making storage of thobwa easy," Sheki said.
Sheki attributed the rise in thobwa's profile to two factors: affordability, as the shelf price for one 500 ml bottle is K25, and the scarcity of soft drinks.
"People are suffering here. When we want soft drinks we go to Blantyre, and lose a lot in transportation costs because transporters charge K100 per crate. This forces us to increase the shelf price to cover up for the direct costs incurred in bringing the products this far.
"Imagine, the soft drinks' distribution vehicle came here on Tuesday, the first time in many months," Sheki added. Sheki said thobwa had claimed fifth position on the list of products that attract more customers. These products are cooking oil, matches, salt, sugar and, then, the sweet local brew.
On his part, Monyadira attributed Thobwa's rise to bouts of hunger that have hit Chikhwawa East Constituency.
"There is hunger here, and people have no maize from which to make flour. The result is that thobwa-drinking has become the first thing people do after working in their fields. Thobwa has more advantages than soft drinks in that it's cheaper and gives people more energy than can be derived from soft drinks. No one is willing to spend K80 on soft drinks because they are not good, energy-wise," Monyadira said.
Monyadira, who said a small bucket of maize was selling at K350 in the area, and that maize vendors were no longer selling 50kg or 90 kg bags of maize because they have realised that they earn more profits through piece-meal trading, added- that thobwa "offers the only hope for our customers, if not the easiest way out of hunger".
"It is true that Thobwa trade is hot now, and raking in more money. But the fact remains that some of the customers are buying it because of the hunger that is in our midst. Let policy-makers help these people out," Monyadira said.
Thobwa-brewing has been part of Malawi's long-time tradition. However, the local product has emerged as a cash-spinner, not only in Chikhwawa
but, in the cities of Blantyre and Lilongwe in the past two years.