LAGOS, April 9 (Reuters) - Chibueze Akukwe sticks a label on a bottle of an upmarket Nigerian spirit in a factory in Lagos. He hopes stylish branding will help sell the tipple, fermented in nearby villages using techniques dating back centuries, to upmarket customers.
A spirit called Ogogoro, referred to locally as "gin", is extracted from palm trees before undergoing fermentation. The resulting drink is cheap, but varies in potency and quality.
Akukwe and his business partner Lola Pedro are aiming higher with Pedro's palm spirit, combining traditional techniques with modern distillation processes to attract wealthy drinkers at home and abroad. Pedro's is already sold in Ghana, Kenya and Britain.
"I didn't see much of a difference between some of the big name brand spirits that we know all across the globe, when you compare those with Ogogoro," said Akukwe, speaking at the company's distillery in Lagos, which produces half-litre bottles sold for $50 in a country where most live on less than $2 a day.
The brand is hoping to tap into a growing appetite for spirits in Africa's most populous country after coronavirus restrictions forced people to host friends at home. Pedro's declined to give details of its sales.
Market research firm Euromonitor said Nigeria's premium spirits market was growing from a low base, "creating interest among the younger, wealthier population whose budgets have been less affected by the COVID-19 epidemic".
Spirits are more usually drunk more at home than other alcoholic drinks and are seen as a growth area in Nigeria because of their high price and low production costs, said Stanbic IBTC Africa analyst Fola Abimbola.
"The spirits market is fragmented," said Abimbola. "Smaller players can compete."
In the impoverished Lagos neighbourhood of Cele-Egbe, a group of men sit under a tree just before dusk and sample a copper-coloured Ogogoro from metal cups.
Pedro's is distilled nearby but sold in the shops, bars and restaurants of more affluent districts. Its customers are not men sitting under a tree.
For Akukwe, the drink is more than just alcohol.
"Our spirits deserve to be showcased," he said. "Our culture and our heritage deserve to be showcased."
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