As horizontal bolts of lightning streaked across the sky on an overcast evening in the Okavango Delta, we could just make out the lumpy shapes of elephants loitering on the trail ahead. Our guide stopped the Land Cruiser as they approached and we sat motionless, transfixed.
There were about 30 of them, some sniffing the night air cautiously with their periscope-like proboscis, others shoving protective little shadows—their tiny calves—between their legs. Like graceful ghosts, they moved silently before disappearing into the bush.
Botswana has the highest elephant population on earth: around 130,000 roam ancient trails around the world’s largest inland delta, which stretches some 6,000 square miles at full tide.
There is something very special about simply going about your daily routine in the presence of these pachyderms – but not everyone would agree. What may be a dream sighting for safari lovers is the stuff of nightmares for local farmers who live on the brink of poverty and try to grow food for their families despite the onslaught of hungry elephants at harvest time.
But it seems that Okavango Craft Brewery (OCB) in Maun, the sleepy gateway town to the Delta, has found a recipe to ease tensions between humans and pachyderms. Their beers have a distinct feel-good flavor while also saving elephants and changing the lives of farmers.
On a hot, damp afternoon a few days after that eerie elephant encounter, I sipped a glass of chilled Delta Lager the color of liquid gold in the bougainvillea-filled garden of the Taproom, OCB’s pub next to the brewery. My husband Will had chosen a refreshing Panhandle Pale Ale, named after the remotest part of the delta, and Graham McCulloch, the brewery’s director, was enjoying a pint of Old Bull Stout. “I grew up on Guinness,” he said in a distinct Dublin accent, “so I insisted we make an Irish stout!”
We could have chosen a session IPA called Kingfisher or The Matriarch, a strong 6% American amber ale. Or Mowana Cider, the local name for the baobab tree. All drinks have names associated with the area or its residents: my favorite was the Mock Charge, a non-alcoholic beer created during Botswana’s Covid ban on alcohol.
Another thing OCB’s beers have in common is that they are all made from millet. yes millet It’s an unusual ingredient in the brewing world, but the popular staple thrives well in this semi-arid environment. Unfortunately, elephants like it too, especially when planted on their migratory trails where many farm plots are located. Therein lies the problem: if they share the same space and food, the lives of humans and pachyderms are endangered.
“People get accused and sometimes killed, but you have to protect your field when you live in a landscape with elephants,” Graham said. “Nevertheless, there are solutions that can reduce conflict and reduce elephant killing, but also add value for elephants. People will actually say, “We want these elephants; don’t shoot them because they’re of value to us.’”
In addition to founding OCB, Graham and his wife, conservation biologist Dr. Anna Songhurst, the NGO Ecoexist to promote coexistence between elephants and humans. They spent 10 years researching while living in the Eastern Panhandle region.
Ecoexist persuaded authorities to move agricultural plots away from migratory paths to more secure field clusters of up to 800 hectares, often containing hundreds of plots. They taught 70 “elephant-conscious” farmers about sustainable practices that produce larger yields of sorghum in smaller areas and how to protect their crops with solar power and chili fences (elephants hate chillies).
All of this meant more work for the farmers, and as an incentive Graham wanted to create a new market that would pay a premium for their excess millet. The first microbrewery in northern Botswana was born.
It got off to a rocky start, opening in 2019 just before the Covid lockdown. Strong local support kept it going and the Taproom Pub opened in August 2021. We sipped our beers to a soundtrack of soothing reggae and the hum of customers young and old, all enjoying the relaxed atmosphere.
Their manager Jonathan Pierce, once a barman at a Wetherspoon pub in Leeds, gave us a tour of the brewery. Between all the steel fermentation tanks, kegs and pipes stood a huge old wooden keg full of rare 100% millet beer.
This is his premium Marula Sour Ale, sold in wax-dipped champagne bottles. “It’s selling well,” said Graham, “and it tastes fantastic!”
OCB’s success is a testament to the tenacity and dedication of the team. Last year they won two medals at the African Beer Cup, the continent’s largest beer competition. And their beers are now sold in hotels in Gaborone, the capital of Maun and Botswana, in Kasane near Chobe National Park and in safari camps across the Okavango.
Perhaps OCB’s most important achievement, however, is that Ecoexist has trained another 200 farmers in elephant-conscious practices, and more are eagerly waiting in the wings. Though there are no safari camps or lodges in the farmers’ remote areas, visitors can fly into their villages for new community tours, set up with Maun-based Ecoexist and Helicopter Horizons.
“The easiest way is to fly guests in by helicopter,” Graham explained. “This means we can connect more communities to tourism and bring more benefits to villages as a direct reward for living with elephants.”
Back in the taproom after our brewery tour, Will and I thought fit to celebrate with another drink. Just by buying a beer we bought into conservation. We raised our glasses to the farmers reaping their rewards for saving the Okavango’s elephants.
The Okavango Craft Brewery offers tours, including a four beer tasting, for $25 (£21).
Helicopter Horizon Tours offers a scenic flight with beer tasting from $295 per person and a Conservation & Coexistence Cultural Experience Tour that includes a guided visit to an Ecoexist supported village for $1,070 per person.
OCB’s craft beers can be enjoyed at Xigera Camp, Wilderness’s DumaTau, Vumbura and Mombo, and the camps at Khwai Private Reserve. Many hotels and lodges in Maun serve their beers including Desert & Delta’s Sedia Hotel from $78pp B&B