JOHANNESBURG/LAGOS Beer sales in Africa are surging because of economic and population growth, a trend rubbing against the grain of another demographic factor defining the region: intense religiosity.
By almost any measure, Africa is an exceptionally devout place and the major growth area for Christianity and Islam.
This should have implications for investors, especially in the fast-growing retail and beer sectors: they must navigate sacred sensitivities in areas such as marketing and factor the faithful into forecasts and demographic profiles for the continent's population of just over a billion.
Brewing executives have said they tone down their advertising campaigns in Africa, and these do tend to be conservative.
In Nigeria for example, scantily-clad women tend not to feature on billboards promoting beer brands. Instead, a man in a suit is portrayed sipping a refreshing cold lager, or more often than not the ad shows just a giant bottle and glass.
According to a 2010 report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the number of Muslims living in Sub-Saharan Africa rose 20-fold from 1900 to 234 million.
Christianity has grown at an even more blistering pace, with numbers soaring almost 70-fold over the same period of time to 470 million from just 7 million.
And in the case of Christianity, much of this growth has been concentrated in Pentecostal churches and other evangelical denominations which, like Islam, tend to frown on alcohol.
The Pew survey also questioned people in 19 African countries about their views on alcohol consumption and found that majorities in all but 3 countries - Cameroon, Chad and Democratic Republic of Congo - found it morally objectionable.
"Views on this issue are related to how religious a person is," said Neha Sahgal, a Pew research associate.
"What we found is that in most of the countries those who pray several times a day are more likely to find drinking alcohol morally objectionable than those who pray less," she told Reuters in a phone interview.
RELIGIOUS AND THIRSTY
Against this backdrop of piety, the conservative approach to advertising seems to be working.
Home to some of the world's fastest growing economies, Africa's thirst for beer and spirits is surging: analysts estimate beer volumes rose around 7 percent last year. Excluding the mature South African market, growth reached more than 10 percent.
Drinks companies want to maintain the momentum.
SABMiller is investing up to $2.5 billion over the next five years to build and renovate breweries on the continent. African sales of rival Diageo, the maker of Guinness, have risen by an average 15 percent in each of the last five years, accounting for 14 percent of the group's total.
Nigeria's 160 million people are now the world's second biggest consumer of Guinness, after Britain, and analysts expect it to take the number one slot within a couple of years. Cameroon, with a much smaller population of around 20 million, is the fifth biggest.
In Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, which is evenly divided between Islam and Christianity, church and mosque numbers are exploding alongside beer consumption.
Beer turnover in Nigeria is growing faster than its economy.
"At the moment, beer consumption is about 19.5 million hectoliters in 2012 and growing at about 8-9 percent per annum," said Esili Eigbe, an analyst at Stanbic IBTC, who covers the brewery sector.
A number of factors could explain this.
Africa's population is young and many of the region's converts find their religious zeal only as they grow a little older. In any case, most people's drinking peaks in their 20s.
And a lot of Africans, like a lot of people on other continents, are both religious and thirsty.
"People's sense of morality sometimes doesn't correspond with their behavior. This is not unique to Africa," said Sahgal, an expert on polling on religious issues.
Some Africans are perfectly comfortable with this fact.
"Islam advises against alcohol but does not force you. I drink to help me relax after a hard day's work," said Wasiu Abudu, a 42-year-old auto mechanic who lives in Lagos.
(Editing by Tim Cocks/Ruth Pitchford)