* Initiative aims to mitigate human-elephant conflicts in Delta region * Approach has led to increased yields for the farmers on small areas * Wilderness supports and empowers farmers by selling OCB beer in camps

The establishment of Okavango Craft Brewery (OCB) in Maun, the capital town of the Okavango Delta, is worthy of an international documentary.

This innovative, privately owned entity exemplifies Botswana's commitment to balancing the protection of both humans and wildlife while reducing conflicts. Additionally, it has a compelling community conservation story to it.

In an exclusive interview held at the DumaTau Resort, Botswana Guardian spoke with OCB Brew Master and Head of Operations, Murray Stephenson. He explained that what sets their brewery apart is the use of locally sourced millet from farmers in the Okavango Delta’s panhandle, who practise elephant-aware farming.

This initiative is facilitated by the NGO Eco-Exist, which aims to mitigate human-elephant conflicts in the region. Eco-Exist collaborates with farmers to protect their fields using methods that prevent elephants from raiding crops. They also work with the Land Board to keep farms out of known elephant corridors, reducing human-elephant conflicts.

Exco-Exist promotes conservation farming techniques to increase yields on smaller plots, making them easier to protect from elephants. This approach has led to increased yields for the farmers. To reward and incentivise farmers for their elephant-friendly practices, Eco-Exist sought to create a market for their produce.

The idea of starting a brewery was hatched considering that beer production requires significant grain, thereby providing a platform to share the farmers' stories. In Wilderness, OCB found a true partnership, one that involves not only trading but also providing training. Wilderness insists on training its staff to ensure efficient operations.

According to Stephenson, this collaboration is crucial because tourists in the Delta enjoy hearing the brewery's story while drinking the beer. Wilderness Botswana has been one of OCB's biggest supporters from the beginning, stocking their beer in most of their camps. Stephenson's presence in the Delta is to share this story and train staff on the importance of the beer and why it is featured in the camps.

Training sessions have been conducted at DumaTau, King’s Pool, and throughout the Linyanti area. These sessions cover brand awareness, product knowledge, serving techniques, guest presentation, and understanding guest preferences to recommend the most suitable beer from their range.

"Having talked to tourists and guests at all the camps, we've found the response to be really good. The first thing that surprises them is the availability of craft beers in northern Botswana, and then they realise there's a brewery in Maun.

“When they hear the story of the brewery, it adds an extra element to the experience. They not only enjoy our beer in the bush, but they also appreciate that our beer supports local communities and conservation efforts in the areas they are visiting," he said, adding that the feedback has been excellent. They also offer tours of the brewery for tourists stopping over in Maun. Many come by to see the brewing process.

Although he could not provide exact numbers on tourist visits, Stephenson said they often receive three to four trucks per week, each carrying about 12 people. Additionally, self-drive tourists and those who fly in and rent vehicles in Namibia, driving through Botswana to Zimbabwe, frequently visit the brewery. It's nice to meet them and explain operations.

Stephenson attributes their growing popularity to aggressive marketing both online and locally. Besides, there's a lot of word-of-mouth promotion, such as from the 4x4 community groups and various volunteers helping to “spread the word about our brewery."

He added that his company visits Wilderness camps as frequently as possible to conduct training, ideally even daily if it were feasible. “We conduct on-site training in Maun for the main staff, and DumaTau is one of the camps with a draft tap. It’s essential to service it regularly and provide training.”

Stephenson explained that the staff that they trained are keen to have face-to-face time to learn about the product. Many guests come from places where craft beer is common, so they ask questions and seek informed answers. It's crucial to empower the staff to engage confidently in these conversations with guests. This, he believes, makes their job more enjoyable.

Stephenson has well-trained staff at the brewery, which ensures that he does not worry much about production and quality assurance in his absence. The team is led by a head brewer who meets the high standards Stephenson, a perfectionist in brewing, has set. The brewing process takes four weeks, and any mistake is only apparent after that time, so meticulous attention to detail is crucial. He trusts his team to maintain these standards.

Stephenson learned brewing in Cape Town, where he often had to learn quickly under pressure, which he found beneficial. What does it take to become a qualified brewer?

Stephenson’s response is that there are various paths. One can study brewing academically, like at the SAB group in South Africa, where there is an institute for brewing and distilling. He studied online and took the test at SAB, but he started with home brewing, experimenting with different ingredients to create unique flavours.

This hands-on approach fuelled his interest and skills in brewing.