. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Burundi Brewery Keys Nation's Fate

BUJUMBURA, Burundi -- Breweries don't usually come to mind when you want to find out how a country is faring economically.


But when the country is Burundi, the well-being of Brarudi, its only brewery, is the key economic indicator.


Since Aug. 9, concern over Brarudi's health has been growing daily as economic sanctions imposed by African neighbors and sabotage carried out by Hutu rebels take their toll.


The brewery, 60 percent owned by Amsterdam-based Heineken brewers and 40 percent by the Burundi government, is dependent on imported rice, sugar, malt and yeast -- as well as spare parts for machinery and fuel -- to turn out Amstel and Primus beer.


All these items are now subject to the blockade imposed Aug. 9 by six African nations to force Burundi's new Tutsi-led military regime to return to constitutional rule and open talks with Hutu opposition leaders and rebels.


Coffee, the principal export, used to be the main source of tax revenue for the government. But even before sanctions were imposed -- making exports impossible -- coffee production had declined drastically because of civil conflict that has caused 150,000 deaths since 1993.


Last year, Brarudi accounted for 27 percent of national tax revenue. This year before the July 25 coup, that amount had already shot up to 40 percent, after the government squeezed the brewery into hiking its prices 20 percent.


The government is dependent on the taxes collected at the door from Brarudi to meet its payroll -- both civilian and military.


Former finance minister Salvator Toyi told a Financial Times reporter in June, "If the brewery did not exist, the country would be in chaos. ... As it is, we wait to receive our check from Brarudi before paying salaries."


With 1,350 workers, both Hutus and Tutsis, Brarudi is also one of Burundi's major employers.


"Beer is very important. Almost every Burundian drinks Primus; it is part of our life," said Januvier Nshimiramana, a hotel manager in Bujumbura.


Local officials at the tightly guarded brewery would not speak to the press. But Koos Woltjes, Heineken's international spokesman in Amsterdam, admitted in a telephone interview that "it is certainly not business as usual down there."