When civil war broke out in 1995, John Christian Kavakure escaped Burundi with a valuable piece of advice from a Jesuit missionary.
“He told me that the biggest employer in Burundi was Heineken,” explains Kavakure as he does the rounds of outlets supplying his beer in Brussels, and adds “so I should study brewing while in Belgium to make it easier to return to Burundi one day.”
Kavakure took the missionary’s advice seriously and studied brewing and distilling for several years in Belgium, before going on to build breweries in Africa, Asia and Europe for Belgian firms.
It was not until 2018 that Kavakure felt he had acquired enough knowledge to set up his own brewery. Today Flobecq Brasserie employs 14 staff in the town of the same name in southern Belgium.
In the same year Kavakure’s first brand of beer Flo 58 won gold at the world championships. This year he launched a second beer called Yellow Flo that sponsored the Grand Depart events of the Tour de France from Belgium.
Kavakure cuts a striking figure dressed all in black. The yellow logo of his latest brand of beer printed on the back of his shirt. He always wears a tie when working, but that does not stop people thinking he is a delivery driver.
“I let potential clients think that I am a delivery driver,” Kavakure recalls with a wry smile, and continues, “when I return with freshly brewed bottles of beer they ask for the brew master and I say “you’re talking to him”.”
Racism is the least of Kavakure’s concerns. To the contrary he sees being black as a blessing to his business.
“People call me the BBB (Black Belgian Brewer),” Kavakure says with pride. “Even people who don’t know me have heard of me.”
Kavakure learnt to make beer long before he began his studies here in Belgium. Fermentation is almost as old as humanity itself, and has been used in Africa for thousands of years.
“I learnt how to do it from my grandmother,” recalls Kavakure and describes her speciality, “she specialised in making beer from sorghum.”
There is no doubt that Kavakure is now reaping the rewards of years of hard work, but it’s an industry that leads to some consumers to alcohol addiction.
“We have lots of people telling us that beer isn’t good," Kavakure retorts and adds, “but in the end all abuse is bad. You mustn’t drink beer, but rather taste beer.”
Hopes to inspire
Kavakure finishes his delivery rounds just in time to watch the peloton of cyclists in the Tour de France, which started this year in Belgium, pass through the Molenbeek district of Brussels.
Molenbeek is one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the city. It has been made notorious due its links with recent terror attacks in Belgium and France. Away from the crowds that turned out to watch the cycle race, young black African men pace up and down hoping to be employed for the day.
It’s people like them that Kavakure hopes to inspire, “I tell them that what’s needed is perseverance, hard work and pride in being African.”