17 January 2011
The week before last I spent a couple of days in Uganda with a party that included two MPs from the House of Commons International Development Select Committee. As guests of SABMiller's Ugandan subsidiary, Nile Breweries, we visited the brewery site in Jinja and a community health programme we help to support in Katakwi Province in the north of the country.
Uganda is a great example of SABMiller's win-win philosophy of using local crops to make its own products more affordable while enabling local subsistence farmers to earn a small income, many of them for the first time. It was Nile Breweries that first developed the sorghum-based Eagle brands that now account for more than 50% of their sales and provide a guaranteed market for over 9,000 local sorghum farmers.
Closely linked to its enterprise development work is Nile Breweries' comprehensive health programme, based on the obvious fact that a successful brewing business needs a healthy workforce, healthy farmers and healthy consumers. Its main aim is to reduce the impact of HIV/Aids through the company's spheres of influence, starting with its employees and their families and working out to the supply chain and the wider community.
Over the last three years, 94% of employees and 32% of spouses have undergone voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) and all those diagnosed as HIV-positive have access to the company's healthcare system. Persuading more spouses to be tested is a problem throughout Africa and Nile Breweries is approaching this by testing couples in their own homes.
One of the many surprises of the trip was Nile Breweries' clinic for employees on the brewery site - in effect a small hospital, dealing not only with HIV/Aids but also with malaria and TB and even carrying out small surgical procedures. It was, to say the least, impressive.
Next stop was the sorghum-growing area of Katakwi, in the far North of Uganda, where Nile Breweries and an NGO called HIPS (Health Initiatives for the Private Sector) are jointly supporting a project to train peer educators who in turn encourage couples in their own community to undertake VCT in their own homes. As a result, of the 4,500 farmers and their spouses registered, 2,632 have so far been tested in their homes and 108 have been referred to the local government hospital for further treatment.
Although progress is being made, I was reminded of the military saying that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. Talk of programmes and systems with their smart acronyms tends to create the impression of well-oiled programmes delivering predictable results. Here in rural Uganda, I realised again that messy reality tends to intervene. Poor transport means that people can't always get to the hospital when they need to. Sometimes they arrive and aren't able to be treated. The supply of life saving drugs to the hospital can be erratic. The logistics of processing test results can mean difficult decisions as to who gets priority.
All that said, a pioneering programme like this needs to start somewhere and it's no good waiting for perfect conditions before embarking. If the Katakwi programme seems rough and ready to an outsider, it's probably a sign that it's tackling genuine and entrenched problems in difficult rural areas. We talk frequently at head office about being involved in the local community. It was good to see at first hand what being stuck in really means. Nile Breweries and the HIPs team have much to be proud of in the work that they are doing.