How the Humble Pint Is Helping to Advance Sustainability Science

Last week saw the launch of a new initiative that will offer 15 post-graduate scientists from nations across Africa the opportunity to work with UK academic institutions in subject areas such as water management, sustainable farming, energy and waste.

The ‘SABMiller Royal Society Exchange Programme’ is a seemingly unlikely collaboration between one of the UK’s leading science establishments and a multinational brewer. I went along to Wednesday night’s launch event at the Royal Society in London to find out how beer is helping to fund new sustainable technologies.

Founded in South Africa in 1895, SABMiller is now one of the world’s premier beverage companies. Over the last 120 years, it has grown from a single brewery to become one of the largest global producers of beer, operating in over 80 countries and manufacturing familiar brands such as Coors, Foster’s and Grolsch.

Africa remains an important market for the business. Aside from the historical connection, African operations make up 30 percent of the company’s annual profit. It also represents a key area of investment, with SABMiller recently announcing plans to merge its bottling operations on the continent with Coca-Cola, in a multimillion-dollar deal.

However, Africa also presents a considerable challenge for the company. The production of beer requires significant quantities of clean water and prime farmland, which many African communities are ill-placed to spare. Current figures show that 214 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are considered undernourished and 300 millionlive in water-scarce areas. These challenges are likely to grow as the impact of climate change becomes more pronounced, adding to pressure on resources.

To safeguard its operations in Africa, SABMiller has recognized that its business will need to undergo substantial adaptation. As CEO Alan Clark pointed out during the launch, to be successful the business must ensure the welfare of its local workforce and national consumers, alongside the expectations of its international shareholders. The company’s response to this challenge has been an initiative called ‘Prosper.’

“Just over six or seven months ago we launched a new sustainable development ambition at SABMiller. This ambition sets very clear targets for ourselves as an organization for the year 2020. Prosper is the name we have given to it, and we’ve called it this quite simply because we recognise that for us to prosper, communities need to prosper.” — Alan Clark, CEO, SABMiller

SABMiller has named these targets ‘Shared Imperatives’ and collaborated with both global organizations and local communities to ensure the adaptation actions that result have common benefit: In order to meet its 2020 target to ensure the security of all water resources it shares with regional communities, SABMiller is working with the Water Futures Partnership to improve wastewater treatment facilities and monitor groundwater levels. To meet food-security targets for small-scale farmers, the brewer has partnered with the Sustainable Agriculture Initiative to increase the productivity of crops such as barley, cassava and sorrel, which are important to both the brewery and the local economy. And to meet waste targets, SABMiller is collaborating with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to turn spent grain into local agriculture products, simultaneously creating a valuable new revenue stream for the company.

So, why the Royal Society collaboration? How can an international post-graduate exchange program help SABMiller increase the effectiveness of this adaptation plan, and how can a brewery help the Royal Society help to tackle wider scientific challenges? The answer lies in Africa’s untapped scientific talent.

The Royal Society is the oldest scientific academy in the world. Founded in the 1660s, it exists to promote the use of science in tackling some of humanity’s greatest challenges, including those associated with the long-term sustainability of water, food, energy and waste in Africa. For over 20 years the fellowship has been working to increase scientific capacity in these areas, by providing African scientists with access to cutting-edge research technology and facilities in the UK. By doing so, they aim to incorporate untapped talent into the global pool of scientific knowledge and draw upon valuable firsthand experience of the sustainability challenges African nations face.

“Africa has got potential. There is a lot that we can gain from linking up with colleagues in Africa. … When working on projects, it is beneficial to have people who have an in-depth knowledge of the landscape, as well as the skills.” — Professor Robert Mokaya, Past exchange post-graduate

For SABMiller, the program is an acknowledgement that adaptation is an ongoing process and, by funding the exchange scheme, the company is investing in the development of a new generation of technologies with which to continue the Prosper program beyond 2020.

Together, SABMiller and the Royal Society are also working towards a longer-term form of resilience. The financial and technical resources they are contributing to the scientific community will help to advance sustainability in general. Thus, they are increasing the likelihood of breakthroughs that could avert business and community impacts for generations to come, and that’s truly a shared imperative.