Precisely 60 years ago, in 1957, Brasseries et Limonaderies du Rwanda – better known as BRALIRWA – was created, with the construction of a brewery on the shores of Lake Kivu, in what is today Rubavu district.
This brewery which was an icon of growth, innovation and development in Rwanda’s economy remains so six decades down the lane.
60 years old however is no short time, and as such it has had its impact not only on the BRALIRWA plant but also on the brewery and beverage industry as a whole.
Yet despite all the evolution in the brewery industry, some feel of the old times still remains at the brewery. A dozen of narrow flights of stairs lead to the roof of a high brick building that houses a big grain silo.
Not only does the structure represent the reality of BRALIRWA’s elevated status in the Rwandan society 60 years ago as the silo was part of the original construction, but it also offers a stunning 360° panoramic view of the present-day brewery, its surroundings and the iconic facility that it continues to be in today’s Rwanda.
From the rooftop, a huge new hangar-like building is visible in all its magnificence which in a nutshell represents the evolution of the last six decades.
The new building is home to the brewery’s state-of-the-art bottling unit, inaugurated in 2013.
The unit consists of a fully automated assembly line where crates with empty bottles come in and filled ones go out. The entire process from one end to the other is handled by machines, and it takes only a handful of people to monitor the process on computer screens at each of the sections, to intervene to solve a problem when required, or to prepare the chain for a new brand of beer or size of bottle – as the plant bottles all of BRALIRWA’s beers: the people’s favourite Primus, Mutzig, Turbo King, Legend and the most recent addition to the beer portfolio, Huza.
“This is the newest technology, which you even won’t find in many breweries in Europe,” explains Richard Jada, the brewing manager at the plant, adding that the plant can process up to 40,000 bottles per hour.
It all starts with crates rolling in with empty bottles, which are then removed by a machine that directs them into the cleaning section. Next they are refilled, capped and labelled, to roll on to the last section of the assembly line where an impressively looking robot puts the filled bottles in clean crates, four crates at a time.
While seeing this assembly line at work is in itself awe-inspiring, it is actually the less obvious aspects of the automation that make the biggest difference in efficiency.
For instance, since there is now minimal human involvement in the actual operations of the bottling process, human errors are as good as eliminated. From the volume of water used in cleaning, the measure of beer needed to fill a bottle to the careful placing of bottles in crates, there is no wastefulness and much less chance of broken bottles.
Furthermore, at the end of every section of the assembly line there are automated checks to remove any bottle that does not meet BRALIRWA’s stringent quality standards.
And not only is the actual bottling process automated, maintenance is too. For instance, in the past the assembly line would often literally grind to a halt due to improper lubrication of the machines, which not only halted production for a significant time, but also resulted in a good number of broken bottles. Today, oil is dispensed automatically, at the right intervals and in the right quantity, to ensure the optimal functioning of the assembly line.
In the same manner, cleaning of the equipment is also mostly automated. All this means that there are much less occasions when people actually have to interfere with the machines. And in case there is a need for an operator to manually make an adjustment, an ingenious Lock Out Tag Out (LOTO) system ensures that the assembly line cannot run unless all the access point doors are properly closed.
Another part of the brewery that is hard to miss from the rooftop of the old silo are the huge fermentation vats that tower over all the other buildings. They, too, are the perfect illustration of how much has changed at the Rubavu plant in the past 60 years – and even more so in the past two decades.
The eight vats, in which beer ferments for about two weeks, each have a capacity of 5,000 hectolitres (500,000 litres), and were only recently constructed. They are an indicator of the increasing demand for BRALIRWA’s beers as they dwarf the brewery’s second biggest fermentation vats, which have a capacity of only 750 hl.
But even among the big vats, evolution is visible. While to the untrained eye the two rows of four vats each look identical, the brewery’s manager, Filip Gheeraert, points out a subtle difference in the valves – in the first row of vats, there are handles to operate them, while in the second (the latest addition built in 2015) those are absent, and the valves are controlled via computer. It may not look as spectacular as the bottling plant, but for the highly-skilled brewery workers it once again ensures more efficiency.
Thus, through continued investment, BRALIRWA forges ahead in its quest to make its operations more efficient, and safe, both in the brewery in Rubavu and the soft-drinks plant in Kigali with one objective – to ensure that the quality of its beverages remains uncompromised at all time.