Nigeria’s craft beer pioneer eyes $65m empire

Kevin Conroy (middle), with Bature Brewery's quality control supervisor, Peace Onwuchekwa (left), and head of brewing, Bayo Ijasan (right).

Kevin Conroy (middle), with Bature Brewery’s quality control supervisor, Peace Onwuchekwa (left), and head of brewing, Bayo Ijasan (right).

Interview with Kevin Conroy

Lives in: Lagos, Nigeria

We speak with Kevin Conroy, founder and CEO of Lagos-based Bature Brewery, about his journey of establishing a craft beer business in Nigeria. Interview and text by Jaco Maritz

Highlights from the article include:

  • The early days of Bature as a microbrewing venture from Conroy’s apartment in Abuja;
  • Strategies for a successful crowdfunding campaign;
  • Conroy’s best marketing move so far;
  • The economics of draught beer in Nigeria; and
  • Why e-commerce in Nigeria is not all it’s cracked up to be.

“The Nigerian beer market is worth $6.5 billion per annum. Our goal is to get 1% of that. And if we get 1% of $6.5 billion, then that’s a $65 million a year business,” says Kevin Conroy, the Scottish-born co-founder and CEO of Bature Brewery, Nigeria’s first craft beer maker.

Founded in 2017, Bature has introduced a variety of craft beer brands infused with local ingredients. Its offerings include Lagos Lager, Black Gold Stout (flavoured with Nigerian coffee beans), Harmattan Haze IPA (with mango and apricot notes), and Shakara (brewed with locally sourced hibiscus). The company incorporates Nigeria’s vibrant music and fashion scenes into its packaging and marketing materials.

The origins of Bature

Conroy arrived in Nigeria in 2012 to work on a UK Department for International Development project aimed at improving the West African country’s business and investment climate. Initially stationed in the northern city of Kano, he later moved to the capital, Abuja.

By 2016, Conroy had grown tired of drinking commercial beers manufactured by multinational brewers Heineken, Diageo and AB InBev, which together control the market. Inspired by the global rise of the craft beer industry, he decided to try brewing his own beer. With the help of his neighbour, James Turley, an Irishman, they set up a small home brewery in a spare bedroom in Conroy’s Abuja apartment. While Conroy continued his day job, the duo brewed on Saturdays. The beer would take two weeks to ferment, yielding 50 bottles, which they mostly consumed themselves.

Conroy and Turley would bring brewing ingredients, such as malt and hops, back in their suitcases whenever they travelled to the UK. “It was hilarious at the airport when they inspected the bags … We just explained we were making soup,” Conroy recalls.

People soon started asking if they could buy the beers, prompting Conroy to consider commercialising his hobby. “Craft beer business was blowing up in the UK and the US and we thought if we could just take all these fruits, spaces, flavours, culture, music, fashion that we see around us, and actually put it into a beer, we can do something really special. So let’s try and actually turn this into a business,” he says.

Crowdfunding campaign

In late 2017, to kickstart the business, Conroy and Turley each committed $10,000 as startup funding. They also raised an additional $20,000 through an online crowdfunding campaign.

Conroy credits the crowdfunding campaign’s success partly to the promotional video they created. He believes the video made the fledgling business’s offering and mission more comprehensible than text or still images could. “I think me talking to the camera or me holding beers and showing what we’re trying to do definitely helped,” he says.

The video, which cost about $2,000 and took two days to shoot, featured several artists and influencers. “We gave people a lot of beers to come and help us film this,” Conroy explains. (Watch the crowdfunding campaign video below:)

Despite the online nature of the crowdfunding campaign, Conroy emphasises the need for offline efforts to promote it. “You still need to work the phones, work the WhatsApps, send people links, follow up and say, ‘Hey did you contribute?’” he advises.

Conroy also notes that entrepreneurs in Africa running online crowdfunding campaigns need to ensure their chosen platform can accept payments from the countries where their potential backers are based. He explains that although the situation may have improved since then, the Western platform Bature used had difficulty processing payments from Nigerian bank cards. “We ended up having to take cash from people and then making payments ourselves on the platform,” he explains.

Establishing the first brewery in Abuja

With the $40,000 capital injection from the founders and the crowdfunding campaign, work began on building a small brewery in Abuja.

One of the business’s early challenges was finding bottles to package the beer. The bottling company in Lagos had a minimum production quantity of 300,000 bottles, while Bature needed only a fraction of this. Conroy flew to Lagos and met with the owner of the bottling company, convincing him with the promise of significantly more future business should Bature succeed. The owner agreed to a smaller production run.

Conroy says this story illustrates the importance of personal relationships in doing business in Nigeria. “It’s a difficult place to navigate politically, regulatory, and also commercially, and it’s usually personal relationships that find you the supplier or find you the solution that you need. Even [with] the move to do everything online, whether it’s taxes or business registration, you’ll still find that you have to go to the office just to get things across the line.”

The first batch of bottles had to be stored in Conroy’s apartment. “It took us basically 12 hours to get the bottles from our car park up to the apartment. And we couldn’t move in the apartment … We had to create a little pathway to get through the living room into the kitchen, into the bedroom, because it was just empty bottles everywhere,” he remembers.

Bature’s first brewery and taproom opened in a mall in Abuja in 2018. The 200m² facility had an initial capacity of 2,000 bottles per month. The taproom was open from Thursdays to Sundays, and the founders hired a few staff to look after patrons.

At this stage, Conroy still had his day job, and neither of the co-founders took a salary from the venture.

While operating from Abuja, the founders met Bayo Ijasan, who has since become the company’s head of brewing. Ijasan, born in Nigeria and educated in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, approached the brewery expressing his desire to join. “I was like, ‘Well we don’t know who you are. I’m doing the brewing. Why don’t you come and intern?’ Conroy recalls. “After his third day, I was like ‘Right, I don’t need to brew anymore – you’re the boss, you know more than me.’ … So he took up the reins of the brewing.”

Despite charging a premium price – roughly double the market rate for standard beer – Bature sold out its stock every month. “A lot of my Nigerian friends and colleagues said Nigerians will never drink expensive beer, they like cheap beer; Nigerians will never drink from a draught tap, the only like bottles; and Nigerians don’t like flavourful beers. I think in the first 12 months we smashed all those myths,” Conroy says.

Each month Bature generated a small profit, which was invested back into the business. However, Conroy recognised it would take the company too long to reach a meaningful size at this pace. “We realised that as much as we were successful in selling out and having a small profit to reinvest, if we continue like this, it would take us 20 years to get half a million dollars of savings … We believed that if we could raise a half a million dollars, we can turn it into a $2 million business within a year or two years.”

So in 2019, Conroy put together a business plan and approached investors to take the business to the next level by opening in Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city with over 20 million people. The company managed to raise the $500,000, mostly from friends and family who each contributed relatively small amounts ranging from $10,000 to $20,000.

Bature has six varieties of beer.

Bature has six beer brands in its stable.

Welcome to Lagos

The company’s plans were briefly interrupted by Covid-19 lockdowns, but construction of the new brewery in Lagos’s upmarket Victoria Island neighbourhood began towards the end of 2020. The brewery opened in early 2021, by which time Conroy had quit his day job to dedicate himself full-time to Bature.

The Lagos site serves both as a brewery and a taproom where patrons can drink and eat. The venue also hosts music concerts and events, including an annual festival called Felabration, which celebrates the music of renowned Nigerian artist Fela Kuti. Conroy believes that combining the taproom and brewery on the same site was one of the company’s smartest moves. He notes that the taproom, which he describes as a tourist attraction, serves as the company’s biggest marketing tool while simultaneously generating revenue.

Bature had begun supplying its beer to various bars and venues across Lagos. By the end of 2022, it was producing about 10,000 litres per month and generating $400,000 annually from beer sales. That year, four of the company’s beers received awards at the World Beer Awards. However, the company had reached full capacity and could not produce more beer to meet the growing demand.

In 2023, Bature raised $2 million with the goal of increasing its production capacity to 50,000 litres per month, expanding the number of bars serving its beer to 300, and enlarging the taproom to accommodate 400 people. The company is currently in the process of executing this business plan and projects revenue of $3 million for 2024.

Tap economics

Roughly 50% of the beer Bature brews each month is sold as draught beer, which is served from a keg tap in bars, while the remainder is canned. Conroy says the company will focus more on draught going forward, as it has better margins.

However, selling draught beer in Nigeria presents several challenges. The country traditionally didn’t have a culture for this type of beer, which means bars aren’t equipped to accommodate taps and kegs, and typically lack cold rooms for storage. Bature therefore needs to educate venue staff on everything from proper storage and equipment cleaning to how to pour the beer. Despite these challenges, Conroy notes that draught beer is one of the fastest-growing segments of the market, not just for Bature, but for other breweries as well.

Due to the lack of draught beer infrastructure in Nigerian bars, Bature typically spends more on installing the systems than it would in countries like the UK or South Africa, where draught beer cultures are more established. Conroy explains that a bar’s minimum order quantity is one keg per week per tap, primarily for quality control, as beer starts to become stale after a week.

He adds that if Bature sells one keg a week to a bar, it will take nine months to recoup the cost of installing the tap. However, the goal is to sell two kegs per week per tap. The company also assumes that a tap will last four years in a venue. “So nine months to pay back the investment, and then you’ve got three years or so to continue to earn revenue from it.”

Marketing artwork for Bature’s Black Gold Stout.

No country for startups

Conroy notes that Nigeria’s high-cost operating environment is not conducive to startups. He explains that launching a business like a brewery requires substantial capital. For example, Nigeria’s inadequate grid-connected electricity forces companies like Bature to rely on diesel generators, which can cost around $50,000 – an amount that could represent the entire startup capital of craft beer makers in other countries. Additionally, Bature had to dig its own borehole for water, and navigating the permits, licensing, and regulatory environment is both complex and costly.

In addition to the minimum order quantities for packaging, other manufacturers, too, demand large minimum orders for their products. This includes raw materials like sorghum and even cleaning supplies, adding another layer of financial burden.

Conroy also highlights the significant challenges posed by Nigeria’s ports, where goods can be stuck for months, incurring substantial costs. While Bature uses a lot of locally-grown sorghum in its brewing process, it cannot rely solely on sorghum and must import barley from the UK. To manage these imports, Bature has outsourced the handling to a Nigerian entity.

In early 2023, a cash shortage in Nigeria caused additional problems. The government announced the introduction of new banknotes, but as the deadline for the old notes to remain legal tender approached, there were insufficient new notes available. This left many without cash to purchase essential items, throwing the business community and economy into chaos.

Conroy adds that, despite media reports of Nigeria’s booming e-commerce market, online sales have been a challenge for the company. “There is not as much e-commerce [in Nigeria] as people think,” he says, adding that many local shoppers are frustrated with e-commerce platforms due to frequent payment failures, out-of-stock products, and long delivery times. “I don’t think there is a huge trust in e-commerce and most people will order by phone or by WhatsApp to our sales reps when they’re looking to buy directly … A lot of our assumptions about e-commerce taking off proved not to work out,” he says.

Staff motivation and retention

To motivate and retain its staff, Bature has introduced an employee share ownership plan (ESOP). Those who spend more than a year at the company receive a small equity stake, which grows with their tenure. Should the company pay dividends or be acquired in the future, all equity holders would benefit.

Conroy acknowledges that junior employees often struggle to understand the ESOP. He notes that while long-term incentives like the ESOP have their place, there is also a need for short-term incentives. To address this, Bature offers monthly rewards for meeting sales targets and an annual bonus when the company achieves its revenue goals, alongside the long-term equity through the ESOP. “Cash at the end of the month is immediately understood and appreciated. So you have to work within those ways that people think,” he says.

Future ambitions

When asked about any other business interests in Nigeria, Conroy mentions his investment in a restaurant in Abuja, which he helped establish. However, he is no longer actively involved in its day-to-day operations.

He does, however, see plenty of other business opportunities in the country. One area he is particularly interested in is the record label industry. He highlights his already extensive network in the music industry due to the many emerging and established artists who have performed at the brewery. Bature is already collaborating with DJs and musicians to record covers of classic Lagos songs, which the company will use as marketing anthems for its Lagos Lager.

But for now, Bature remains his primary focus. By 2026, Conroy envisions an industrial-scale brewery with a capacity of 500,000 litres. Building such a facility could cost up to $40 million, which he anticipates raising from traditional private equity investors. Even at this scale, the entrepreneur asserts that the company would still consider itself a craft brewer, as it would be substantially smaller than giants like Heineken or AB InBev. This growth would enable Bature to distribute its products across multiple Nigerian states and potentially enter the export market.

Reflecting on the market dynamics, Conroy shares a recent conversation with his employees. “It’s exceptionally unfair that three companies dominate a $6.5 billion market,” he remarked, drawing laughter from his team. “Do you guys not feel that we deserve at least a small piece of this?” he added.