Traditional Nigerian palm spirit drink goes upmarket

Pedro’s Premium Ogogoro bottles.

Pedro’s Premium Ogogoro bottles.

By Tatenda Kanengoni, bird story agency

For decades, ògógóró, a Nigerian traditional palm spirit, was illicit – despite being popular. Lagos-based entrepreneurs Lola Pedro and Chibu Akukwe have embarked on a mission to restore its legacy, by offering a premium version.

With each tap, drops of palm sap fall onto the dewy foliage in the bush in Sapele, a town in Delta State, Nigeria. The group of harvesters has one mission – to collect as much nectar sap as possible during this bumper harvest. The next crop may not be as bountiful.

“Our palm sap harvest depends on the natural cycle of harmattan and rainy seasons every year. The number of units produced is determined by how bountiful our harvest is,” explains Chibu Akukwe, co-founder of the small batch palm spirit, Pedro’s Premium Ogogoro, from his Lagos base.

The sap is a key ingredient for Akukwe’s product, a 100% organic palm spirit, handcrafted in Nigeria.

The process is as meticulous as it sounds. Every bottle of Pedro’s indicates production batch and quantity. The intentional and conscious approach to the product is rooted in Akukwe’s and co-founder Lola Pedro’s respective journeys, during which they realised that African products are often deemed inferior.

“For us as Africans, we understand things that are quintessentially African, and we also understand luxury, but the two together is rare,” explains Pedro.

Akukwe’s time spent in America highlighted just how rare the concept of ‘African luxury’ actually was. “While in America, I was not satisfied with the portrayal and perception of Africans among my American friends and the Western society generally.”

Akukwe, a financial analyst, and Pedro, who has a background in research and multimedia technology, partnered to identify an African product that would disrupt this narrative, one that was undermined yet fared well enough to be lavish and bring it to market.

“It didn’t necessarily have to be with alcohol, so we looked at many other marginalised things that are quintessentially African. The idea was for us to take a product that is marginalised because it’s African and take it right to the top and have people respect it the way they respect a Mercedes Benz or Louis Vuitton. Alcohol became an easier vehicle for us to express this point because of the logistics and infrastructural constraints,” Pedro narrates.

Ògógóró, a popular local spirit, made the cut.

“We were enjoying this palm spirit which we cooked in the bush, and people were taking it for medicinal, enjoyment, ceremonial, and also spiritual purposes, and it was a thriving industry; this was our local spirit, there’s no shortage of palm trees in the tropical part of West Africa,” Pedro says.

Ògógóró, which is distilled from fermented palm tree juice, has been in existence in Nigeria and different coastal parts of West Africa for decades. Commonly referred to as a ‘local gin’, ògógóró was deemed an illicit brew in the colonial era in a move many saw as a way to elevate the competing British gin. Over time, its popularity waned as Nigerians began to consider it as of lower value to imported spirits from the West, which were deemed of superior quality.

In Sapele, in the southern region of Nigeria, ògógóró producers would traditionally retreat into the bush, where they would make the spirit by first tapping the palm trees to extract the sap, just as it is done now, and then control the intensity of the fires under their pots to control the evaporation and distillation rate. They kept refining their process until they had a smooth brew.

At Pedro’s, they have maintained a similar process where they still tap the palm trees to extract the sap, then place it in a pot on a fire, for evaporation and distillation – although most of this is now done in-house, in controlled circumstances. This also helps to regulate the alcohol percentage to a legalised approved level and allows for more refinement of the final product, which is then carefully packaged.

The bottle’s signature colour is blue and white and the bottle cap design includes a dripping blue paint effect.

Labelling of Pedro’s Premium Ogogoro bottles.

Labelling of Pedro’s Premium Ogogoro bottles.

In 2018, Pedro and Akukwe consulted with some renowned distillers to produce batch zero of Pedro’s Premium Ogogoro to work as a pilot batch, in a process which entailed repackaging the traditional ògógóró and serving it in a bold, colourful glass bottle. They released about 1,800 bottles to study how the market would receive the product.

“We wanted to know, is Lagos or Nigeria ready for premium ògógóró? We wanted to test the waters,” Pedro says.

The market reaction surprised both of them – the pilot batch quickly became a collectable after the first few people had tried the product.

“You had people that laughed, and you also had people that were like, ‘are you kidding? Let me try it’, and you also had people that saw the packaging and were like, ‘okay, I’ll give it a try’,” Pedro recalls.

“Through word of mouth, suddenly we would get a phone call like ‘hey, we heard someone is doing premium ògógóró can we taste it?’ Batch zero was something to marvel at. Some guy is keeping it for his children. You get old people coming and saying, ‘My daughter, you’ve just validated us; I never thought in my lifetime I would see ògógóró taken to this level; you have made us proud.’”

“Those things are way beyond me; I feel humbled to be a part of that journey,” she adds.

Lagos resident Logo Oluwamuyiwa was one of the early customers of Pedro’s Premium Ogogoro. “I heard about Pedro’s from the founders a few years back; it came up during conversations around design and culturally fluent actions/products. I found it extremely fascinating as an idea at the time and as a finished product of that process over time,” Oluwamuyiwa says.

“Any important life event I have must be celebrated with Pedro’s, and every important person I respect, and I intend to send a gift gets bottles of Pedro’s. This is because they might be having it for the first time, and often, like clockwork, they reach out for more. It’s always fun watching that conversion happen. Pedro’s represents the refinement of what it means to be contemporary and yet connecting to the pulse of what originates from home,” he adds.

Four years later, Pedro’s, fully registered and on batch number five, is featured in the menus, bars, and shelves of high-end restaurants, private members’ clubs, and lifestyle concept stores in Lagos and beyond, including Accra, Ghana, as well as a few private members’ clubs in Nairobi and Johannesburg.

A Michelin star-rated restaurant in London also has Pedro’s on its menu, and Pedro’s will be available in New York City soon.

“Our product is what we call FABA – For Africa, By Africa. We are speaking to ourselves, and we are creating for ourselves,” says Pedro.

The Pedro’s team is small but growing and the core team members are based in Lagos, while the rest of their team members are spread across Africa, Europe, and North America.

The duo also does not rule out moving to other products. “We are ultimately creating things; we are adding value, and we are adding value on the continent,” Pedro says.

“We are on a mission to showcase new and exciting possibilities out of Africa to the world. We believe it is important that we tell the African story ourselves and steer away from historical narratives told by others, which are usually inaccurate and negative. We intend to continue developing new and innovative products that exemplify African excellence and push forward a new African narrative on a global scale,” Akukwe adds.

/bird story agency