Fortnite: the world’s most popular video game?

More than 45 million people are now playing a cartoon-style video game online where 100 characters battle against each other until only one is left standing. This is Fortnite.

Source: Epic Games media bank

A few months ago, my son sent me a promotional clip for a video game to ask if we could get it for our Xbox. I thought it looked good, and I figured it was time for him to move on from Minecraft and Fifa ’17, so we got the game: Fortnite Battle Royale.

Now I cannot stop playing it myself…

Evidently, I’m not the only one; earlier this year Fortnite Battle Royale was being played by 3.4 million people concurrently – setting a new record for simultaneous plays. The game has also broken the record for the most people watching a personal Twitch stream, with over 600,000 people streaming a session in which musician Drake teamed up with professional-gamer Tyler ‘Ninja’ Blevins. Golf-pro Tiger Woods is in on the action too, describing Fortnite as “a player’s heaven” in a recent interview. Professional soccer players have also been mimicking gestures from the game in their goal celebrations.

With this kind of attention – and the fact that Fortnite is free to download and play on PC, Playstation and Xbox – it’s easy to see why the game’s player numbers are snowballing up from the 45 million reported earlier this year. A free-to-play mobile version has just been released too.

Fortnite is a hit thanks to a combination of three things: a fresh take on a simple and familiar narrative, beautiful animated artwork, and frequent feature updates. It’s a game that’s fast, fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously.

A new-look battle royale

As the name indicates, Fortnite Battle Royale is loosely based on the ‘last-man-standing’ fighting concept first introduced in the Japanese film “Battle Royale”. There are several battle-royale style video games available, but the award-winning Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) is the one that made the genre massively popular. Until the recent surge in Fortnite’s player numbers, PUBG was the world’s most-played battle-royale style game.

Fortnite’s spin on the battle-royale narrative goes something like this: around 100 players skydive together in real time out of a flying bus (“The Battle Bus”), landing at different places on an island to search for weapons they then use to eliminate one another in a game that lasts just over 20 minutes. Games are kept fast and active through a deadly storm that moves upon the island every few minutes, forcing remaining players to run towards an ever-shrinking play zone or risk being eliminated.

That’s about where Fortnite’s similarities with other battle-royale style games end. Whereas many games aim to look and feel as close to real as possible, Fortnite has embraced an animated hyper-reality that breathes fresh life into the genre.

Vivid action in cartoon comfort

The island itself is a seek-and-shoot paradise. Abandoned houses, factories, gas stations and towns are spread out across the map into more than 15 ‘biomes’ separated by fields, forests and hills. Players must explore and traverse these environments – Tilted Towers, Fatal Fields, Salty Springs, Retail Row… the list goes on – while encountering one another on the way to a showdown.

The vivid colours of the animation are used to great effect together with convincing audio, creating urban and rural environments that players can explore in the comfort of a cartoon. Caches of weapons (which include assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, pistols and RPGs) are found in glowing golden treasure chests. Players can quickly patch themselves up with bottled potions, and can build elaborate fortifications from wood, steel and brick – actions that draw parallels with Minecraft.

While there is no getting around the fact that Fortnite is a shooting game, the softer nature of the animation style has made it more accessible to younger players than other battle-royale games, as well as more palatable to parents. There is no blood ‘n guts in Fortnite; players expire and dissipate rather than die. These are eliminations – not kills.

You can also team up with your friends to play in groups of two of four, running around the island together while chatting through headphone mics from the comfort of your own homes. This social side is a big part of Fortnite too.

Fun to play, difficult to master

Epic Games, the company behind Fortnite, is offering the game free so as to widen the audience for the business-side of the equation: in-game purchases of emotes, light-hearted hand gestures, and silly dance moves, as well as animated ‘skins’ that change the look of a player or their standard-issue equipment. While these features offer no in-game advantage – expect perhaps to intimidate other players – they are intrinsic to the somewhat goofy nature of Fortnite, with characters able to look like astronauts, knights and super-hero type figures. On the Easter weekend, Epic Games even released a “Rabbit Raider” skin; a white or pink rabbit suit complete with an animated egg as a backpack. An egg-shooting rocket became available at the same time.

While it’s hard to take a game with a pink bunny rabbit too seriously, Fortnite does require concentration and practised skills. Shooting accurately isn’t easy, and building structures takes quick thinking. There’s also a strong strategic element, as players try to figure out the best way to approach the hand they’ve been dealt upon landing on the island. Each game is a completely fresh chance for everyone though; there are no saved weapons or special abilities in Fortnite – it’s an even playing field every time you skydive out of the Battle Bus.

Fortnite’s player numbers are likely to have skyrocketed over the 2018 Easter weekend. And there will be more growth yet. With game updates being released all the time to keep things fun and fresh, we can expect the Fortnite storm to be around us for some time to come.

Source: Epic Games media bank

Cape Town is about to run out of water

Cape Town – the city I was born in and called home for some 20 years – is now just 73 days from running out of water. The ominously named “Day Zero” is currently scheduled for 12 April 2018: the day the taps will be turned off.

If this article sounds like something out of an Armageddon story, that’s because it may well be. Cape Town, one of the world’s most visually striking cities, is about to experience what life is like when no more water comes out of the tap. It’s something that most people in the world’s big cities never need to give much thought to, but right now it’s the only thing that people who live in Cape Town are thinking about.

Damned to drought

Cape Town lies at the edge of a coastal plateau, bordered by the Atlantic Ocean to the west and the Indian Ocean to the south. To the north-east are the mountains from which the city gets most of its water, with mid-year winter rain flowing into several large dams that usually feed Cape Town through the dry summer.

But now it hasn’t rained properly for some three years, with 2017 the driest on record. Climatologists are not only calling it a drought, they’re saying that Cape Town is going to continue getting drier. The semi-desert on the other side of those mountains is closing in on the city, and the fertile coastal plateau – the reason Cape Town was originally established almost 400 years ago – is slowly drying up.

The effect is compounded by the fact that the city’s population has grown rapidly over the past decade or so, with four million people now living in the greater metropolitan area (the unofficial number may be substantially higher). There is simply no longer enough water to go around.

The murky waters of politics

As of writing this article, the dams are at 27% and Capetonians have been told to reduce their daily tap water consumption to 50 litres or less per person from 1st February. But only around 40% of the city’s residents have been meeting targets, which there is little anyone can do to enforce. So it’s no longer a question of “if the taps run dry” – now it’s just about waiting and preparing for the inevitable. People have stopped flushing toilets, they’re queuing for hours to fill containers at the city’s few natural springs, and they’re stockpiling bottled water from wherever they can find it. Some supermarkets have now started to limit water purchases to 20 litres per person.

All this of course begs the question: why did nobody see this coming? There are many places in the world – some far drier than Cape Town – that have made adequate provisions to supply fresh water. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest producer of desalinated water, the United Arab Emirates is not far behind, and Spain is also up at the top (The Canary Islands get almost all their water from desalination).

While Cape Town is now scrambling to build small desalination plants and tap groundwater sources, it’s almost certainly a case of too little too late. The city can ultimately only blame itself for not acting sooner, but the council is no doubt pointing the finger at the country’s African National Congress-led government. The ANC is purportedly bitter about losing its Cape Town seats in a recent election cycle. Combine this rancour with the ruling party’s famous penchant for graft, greed and cronyism, and you have a recipe for South Africa at its inefficient and ill-prepared worst.

When the taps run dry

Whatever the politics may be, it’s Cape Town’s residents who are now suffering. When the dams reach a level of 13.5%, the city authorities will shut off the water supply to all but the most critical medical and commercial services. Citizens will then have to queue at a limited number of groundwater collection points for an allocated 25-litres each per day. Beyond the personal inconvenience and hardship, the impact could be massive: business closures, social upheaval, spread of disease, violence, mass migration – the list goes on…

The fact is that nobody knows quite how bad it’s going to get. Perhaps the citizens of Cape Town will be gifted a week of freak rains that come early and fill the dams enough to survive until winter. But a more likely scenario is that the worst is still to come.

It’s hard to find anything positive in this dire situation. The only thing I can think of is that it’s good Capetonians have finally woken up to a problem that isn’t going to go away. But for now, the only real silver lining for Cape Town lies in the clouds themselves.

Boeing’s 747 keeps on delivering

Each year another airline retires its Boeing 747s or announces plans to do so, typically replacing them with smaller, more modern planes that can fly further and at a lower cost. But while the Jumbo Jet’s days as a passenger plane may be numbered, there are signs this aviation icon will still be carrying our air freight for a long time to come.

British Airways runs the world’s largest 747 passenger fleet, with 36 of the aircraft in operation.
Picture credit: British Airways media bank

Of all the things that make the Boeing 747 special, it’s not the plane’s many firsts, mosts and biggests that explain why it captures the imagination of so many people. It’s because the 747 has achieved the seemingly impossible task of both marking and defying time.

Those of us who grew up with the Jumbo Jet still feel a nostalgia-tinted sense of childhood wonder whenever we see or fly on one today, marveling at the beauty of a plane that looks as graceful now as when it first took to the skies nearly 50 years ago. The Boeing 747 is more than just a way of flying from A to B – it’s a bridge across time itself.

The first 747 test flight took place on 9th February 1969 – five months before the Apollo 11 moon landing and six months before the Woodstock festival! Within a year, Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) was flying the new four-engine plane from New York to London, and the 747 quickly became the long-haul model of choice for airlines ferrying people and cargo around the world.

From four engines to two

In the years since, twin-engine aircraft have become increasingly efficient, and today some of them – such as Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and the competing Airbus A350 – can fly even further than the 747. So most major airlines have gradually been replacing their 747s with more modern planes.

Singapore Airlines – which once operated the world’s largest 747 fleet – was one of the first major carriers to retire its passenger-carrying jumbos. Air France, Cathay Pacific and Saudia – all of which used to have sizeable fleets of the aircraft – flew their final 747 flights in 2016. Taiwan-based EVA Air retired the plane last August, and both United Airlines and Delta will do so later this year. Australia’s Qantas is still operating some 747s, but will gradually replace those with Dreamliners.

A freighter for the future

In July 2017, when presenting its latest 20-year forecast, Boeing acknowledged that it no longer sees much demand in the passenger market for large airplanes like the 747. But in the same report Boeing offers some hope to those of us who hold the Jumbo Jet so dear, forecasting that it will need to produce some 550 wide-body freighters over the next two decades. That almost certainly means we’ll see more 747s rolling off the production line.

Boeing has long made a freighter version of the 747, recognizable for a nose door that can be raised to accommodate super-supersized shipments in the body of the aircraft. According to figures from aviation intelligence company Flight Global (reported in The Seattle Times), there are 374 of these freighters in operation today, outnumbering the 253 passenger-carrying 747s still in active service.

Interestingly, the 747’s characteristic hump was originally designed to allow easier loading of cargo. At the time, Boeing was concerned that supersonic aviation would quickly dominate the passenger market and render the 747 obsolete as a people carrier. So ferrying cargo was always part of the company’s strategy for the aircraft – if only as a back-up plan. In some ways then, the shift towards using the 747 mainly as a cargo carrier is a return to its original purpose.

Picture credit: Boeing image gallery

In mid 2016, Boeing announced that Russian air cargo specialist Volga-Dnepr Group had ordered 20 freighter 747s to add to the 16 it already runs. Later the same year logistics-giant UPS said it would buy up to 14 freighter 747s, with an option to purchase another 14 at a later stage. This was Boeing’s single biggest order for the plane since Lufthansa took 20 just over a decade ago.

In another encouraging sign of Boeing’s belief in the long-term future of the 747 freighter, the company has even been buying the planes back and leasing them out again. Its lease customers include cargo carriers operating in oil-rich regions of Russia and Azerbaijan, who use 747 freighters to transport heavy drilling equipment.

Flying into forever

Hearing a plane called a “freighter” makes one think of science fiction films and the inter-planetary airship freighters in those. They’re typically depicted as scrappy, aging workhorses that have seen-it-all, and are trusted by pilots to do their job beautifully. In the world we inhabit, that freighter is the 747.

So it’s easy to imagine that on the day the Jumbo Jet turns 100 years old (9th February 2069), it won’t be travelers at Heathrow or JFK watching the plane land. It’ll be the residents of a snowbound city in Siberia who will hear the low rumbling of the Queen of the Skies as she rolls in over the hills – carrying her cargo as gracefully as she will always bear the weight of time.

Picture credit: Boeing image gallery

Cigarette advertising: from glamour to horror

Over the past few decades tobacco companies around the world have been forced to cease advertising, hide cigarettes from view in stores, and sell their product in some of the ugliest packaging imaginable. So have these changes been accompanied by a decline in rates of smoking? Broadly speaking, the answer is yes.

I was born in South Africa in 1975, so I’m old enough to remember a time and a place where cigarette advertising was as common as, say, mobile phone advertising is today. From billboards and magazine ads, to Formula 1 cars and cinema spots – cigarette advertising was everywhere. The tobacco company sales reps even used to drive around in cars emblazoned with Rothmans, Winston and Camel logos. It was completely normal back in the ’80s.

But while seeing these ads was normal, what they depicted was far from it. Like a lot of great advertising, the cigarette companies didn’t directly sell their product: they sold a lifestyle. The Camel Man was the essence of that rugged adventurer in the wild; the Marlboro Man was the embodiment of the tough cowboy; and some cigarette brands – such as Pall Mall, Benson & Hedges, and Belair – just unabashedly embraced that age-old, number-one selling proposition of all time: sex appeal.

You can find hundreds of these old ads online, but here are a few gems from the 1970s:

Go back a few more decades and you even have ads with doctors and dentists recommending cigarettes!


The ultimate in ugliness

Well how times have changed…

As governments around the world have realised that the burden smoking places on the state – through medical costs and reduced workforce output – outweighs the benefits of taxing cigarettes, restrictions or outright bans on advertising have come into force in most countries. In many places cigarettes are now no longer even on display in shops.

What’s more, a growing number of countries have made it mandatory for cigarette packages to display the no-holds-barred horror of smoking, with full colour pictures that show the worst of its effects on people. I was in part motivated to write this article after a recent trip to South East Asia, which has some of the most gruesome cigarette packets I have ever seen. Below are a few such examples from Thailand:

Australia, France and the United Kingdom have even gone one step further. In these countries, all cigarette brands must now sell their products in the same monotone-coloured packaging (complete with gory images). Similar laws will come into effect in New Zealand, Norway, Ireland and Hungary through 2018 and 2019.

The colour used for this plain packaging is Pantone 448 C, a muddy-brown shade proposed by market-research firm GfK, who were tasked by the Australian government to come up with the least appealing colour possible. The company tested various colours on more than 1,000 regular smokers, but none proved to be as off-putting as Pantone 448 C…

Is all the horror working?

It’s not a straightforward task to draw a line between cause and effect in determining if these marketing restrictions are working. There are many other factors influencing people’s decisions to smoke or not to smoke, including pricing, anti-smoking campaigns and better education overall. But I was curious to see what the trend is, so I went hunting for some data…

In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted a massive global study on tobacco smoking (download the report here), with comprehensive country profiles that include breakdowns by gender. Tariq Khokhar, a data scientist from the World Bank, has used this and other WHO data to create a series of charts that illustrate trends in global rates of smoking. Here are some of the points I found most interesting:

  • More than a billion people smoke worldwide
  • Smoking rates decreased or remained constant in 102 countries between 2000 and 2015. The biggest drops were in Denmark, Norway, Uruguay and Myanmar
  • Over the same period, smoking rates increased in 27 countries – all of them low- and middle-income nations. Bahrain, Cameroon, Jordan and The Democratic Republic of the Congo all saw massive increases
  • In several Northern European countries – namely Austria, Ireland, Norway, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands – rates of smoking are equal or almost equal between women and men. (What better indication of gender equality perhaps than the economic and social freedom to smoke yourself to death at the same rate?)
  • The only two countries in the world where women smoke more than men are Nauru and Sweden (although by a very slim margin in Sweden)

Where to from here?

It seems fair to say that smoking rates around the world will continue to fall, in part driven by legislation around advertising. But clearly more needs to be done, particularly in those lower- and middle-income countries that saw rises between 2000 and 2015.

In Finland, where I live, the government is aiming to create a tobacco-free country by 2040, and has put an action plan in place to meet this goal. Initiatives include selling cigarettes in standardised packaging, taxing them even more heavily, and extending smoke-free zones to cover apartment buildings, more public areas and cars transporting children.

Protecting our kids from second-hand smoke and educating them early about the dangers of smoking constitute arguably the most important front in reducing the harm caused by cigarettes. Overall I believe our children will be more informed and in control of their health decisions than previous generations, but it certainly helps that cigarette companies are no longer allowed to sell them a lifestyle that we all know to be a complete lie.


Disclaimer: In case it wasn’t obvious from the tone and content of the article, please note that the cigarette advertisements shown here are for educational purposes only. The author does not endorse the tobacco industry in any way.

What’s Helsinki’s newest hotel and tallest building really like?

Staying in a hotel in the city where you live is a bit like buying bottled water when the tap water is fine. But if that hotel is also the new tallest building in town – and has a rooftop pool – then it’s worth visiting for the view alone. So I checked in to see what the Clarion Hotel Helsinki has to offer.

I had initially thought about staying in the hotel on a Sunday or Monday night to get that feeling of the solo business traveller. You know…arriving in a new city in the late evening, too early to go to bed, possibly too late to go out and get something to eat. But that scenario felt too much like an older version of my life, so I decided instead to spend Friday of the May Day weekend there with my two young kids. Someone had to try out the pool despite the snow!

Location, location, lonely…

The Clarion is built next to the sea in a newly developing harbour area that might one day actually…well… develop. But for now it’s neither here nor there, and restaurant or bar options – besides the ones the hotel has to offer – are few and far between.

Although it’s a bit of a lonely location, tram number 9 stops right outside the hotel and gets you to downtown Helsinki in just five to ten minutes. Tram 9 runs a brilliant route that slices straight through the centre of the city, continuing all the way to the main conference and exhibition centre in Pasila. It’s also very easy to travel west by road from the hotel out to Keilaniemi and the rest of the city of Espoo, where many multinationals have offices. So for business travellers the Clarion is actually in a very convenient location. It’s good thinking from the hotel group.

A room with a view

The location also affords the Clarion a view to really write home about. The two cube-like buildings that make up the hotel are angled in such a way that you’ll get a good look at Helsinki from just about any of the 425 rooms. With floor to ceiling windows throughout, you can see that the architects really did their homework. The views are great.

The rooms themselves – which have nice high ceilings – are done in a comfortable Nordic style that’s uncluttered without being clinical. White walls and light parquet are balanced by warm lighting and touches of dark wood in the furniture. It’s all very tasteful. The bathrooms are done in a similar theme, with both white and black towels that look good together. This monochrome theme is actually continued from the hotel’s exterior, which is made up of white and grey panels that take some getting used to from the outside. The colour palette makes a lot more sense from the interior.

Heading to the top

What the Clarion is really about though is its height. The urban development style in Helsinki is to build out rather than up, but the hotel breaks that model in style. The view from the Sky Room bar on the 16th floor is very generous to the Helsinki skyline – especially at night. The gym, pool and saunas – also on the 16th floor – may be small, but they work very well together. The pool even has a glass panel built into it so you can look out at Helsinki from underwater.

The Clarion is Nordic style and global-hotel thinking at its best. Definitely a great place to stay on a trip to Helsinki – business or otherwise.

Diabetes explained in five minutes

Diabetes is one of the world’s fastest growing chronic conditions. Yet it’s widely misunderstood among those not affected by it. Here’s a five-minute read with what you need to know.

To understand diabetes, we need to start by looking at the role of carbohydrates in the human diet.

We typically eat ‘complex carbohydrates’ such as rice, bread, pasta, maize and potatoes for more than half our daily energy intake. These staples are labelled ‘complex’ because their molecular structure is such that it takes time for our digestive system to break them down and release their energy into our bloodstream as glucose. We also get energy from ‘simple carbohydrates,’ which our bodies break down into glucose much more quickly. These may be healthy foods such as fruit, or unhealthy ones like candy, soda and anything else containing raw sugar.

Insulin is the key

When non-diabetic people consume carbohydrates and glucose begins entering the bloodstream, the body triggers the release of a hormone called insulin. Produced in the pancreas, insulin can be thought of as a key to the cells of our muscles. It basically unlocks these cells so that the glucose in our blood can enter our muscles and feed them. This is how our body stores energy and – especially important for children – it’s how we grow.

For diabetics, the production of insulin or the body’s response to insulin doesn’t take place in the same way. Here we need to look at the difference between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.

Type 1 diabetes

For a type 1 diabetic, the pancreas does not produce insulin at all. Therefore, the glucose from the broken-down carbs simply stays in the bloodstream. In the short term this high blood sugar causes extreme thirst, irritation, disorientation, tiredness, frequent urination and – left unchecked – eventually a coma. But having high blood sugar regularly over the longer term – for many years – can ultimately cause blindness, gangrene, kidney failure and other life-threatening conditions. This is especially serious when one considers that type 1 diabetes is a chronic disease: once you have it, you have it for life.

Fortunately, type 1 diabetics can mimic the function of the pancreas by administering artificial insulin – either through injections or with an insulin pump – at a consistent rate throughout the day and night, and in spot dosages that correspond to their carbohydrate intake. People with type 1 diabetes need to check their blood sugar level every few hours, typically by pricking a finger for a drop of blood, but increasingly with an electronic sensor. They then calculate their carbohydrate intake for a meal and give themselves a corresponding dose of insulin. In a child, for instance, 10 grams of carbohydrate (roughly equivalent to a small slice of bread) may require half a unit of insulin. In an adult, perhaps double that amount or more.

Type 1 diabetics face a constant battle to get the dosage of insulin right. Give too little and blood sugar remains high, leaving you tired, irritable and thirsty. Give too much and you can inadvertently and rapidly plunge your blood sugar down to dangerous levels, causing a feeling of extreme weakness that requires the urgent ingestion of quick-burning carbohydrates. Many of us have experienced the effects of low blood sugar at some stage in our lives, usually from exercising without eating enough. But type 1 diabetics experience such episodes acutely and with much greater frequency.

What causes type 1 diabetes?

Type 1 diabetes begins when an autoimmune response (i.e. the body attacking itself) causes the insulin secreting beta cells in the pancreas to stop working. Nobody knows exactly why this autoimmune response occurs, but it’s believed to be triggered by an external factor such as a viral infection or an allergy of some kind – often during early childhood.

Type 1 diabetics are genetically predisposed to this autoimmune event. This does not mean that everyone who is genetically predisposed will end up with type 1 diabetes, but it does mean there is a greater risk of it. Also, certain cultures and geographies are genetically more at risk than others. Finland, for instance, consistently has the highest rate of type 1 diabetes in the world.

Type 2 diabetes

The major difference between type 1 diabetes and type 2 diabetes concerns the production and role of insulin. Whereas the pancreas of a type 1 diabetic does not produce insulin at all, the pancreas of a type 2 diabetic does produce insulin, but the body is unable to recognize and use it to process glucose. This is what’s known as “insulin resistance,” and it can typically be treated with oral medication that helps the body to lower blood sugar.

Although there is also an aspect of genetic predisposition to type 2 diabetes, it doesn’t play as strong a role as with type 1 diabetes. Whereas for type 1 this “heritability factor” (i.e. the role of genetics versus the role of the external environment) is approximately 80%, for type 2 it is around 10%. What this means is that environmental factors play a far more important role than genetics in determining susceptibility to type 2 diabetes, which is often triggered by poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. Put simply, if you are genetically predisposed to type 2 diabetes – and you may not even know if you are – then you should be especially careful to eat well and exercise regularly.

Where to from here?

While there are marked differences between the causes and incidence of type 1 and type 2 diabetes, they share one very important factor: both are on the rise globally.

For type 1, this rise can be attributed to an increase in the unknown environmental factors triggering the initial autoimmune response, and/or to gene modifications that are being passed down from one generation to the next and increasing susceptibility to the condition.

For type 2, the rise is largely coupled with an increase in global rates of obesity driven by unhealthy eating and a lack of exercise.

These developments mean that in coming decades we will see more and more investment in diabetes research and care. There are already hundreds of companies working on diabetes: from trying to find ways to regenerate the original insulin producing beta cells, to producing apps that make it easier for diabetics to manage their carb intake, blood sugar and insulin dosages.

Look out for an article on some of these companies later this year…

Keeping the circular economy intact

One of the oldest examples of the circular economy is the way we recycle and reuse glass bottles. But sometimes we break the circle and create unintended consequences, as I found out on a trip to Mozambique.

Maputo, the capital of Mozambique.

Recycling is core to the business models of a couple of my clients, so lately I’ve been paying more attention to the industry than I have in the past. We tend to think of recycling as a relatively recent trend and associate it with the growing environmental awareness of the past few decades. But it’s been around a lot longer than that, becoming part of mainstream consumer culture in the 1970s with the introduction of the first incentives for returning and reusing that most universal of durables: the glass bottle.

I started thinking about this on a recent trip to Mozambique’s capital Maputo, where I went to visit my uncle. He’s been living there on-and-off for close to 20 years, so speaks nostalgically now about many things that have changed since he first arrived: restaurants & bars that have closed, friends who have moved on or passed away, and old buildings that have been knocked down to make space for new ones. Something else he says has changed over the years is an increase in the variety of foreign beers available, many of which come in non-returnable bottles…

Cash for return

Beer drinking is as much a part of African culture as it is anywhere else in the world. While per capita consumption is lower than in most European countries, beer is still the go-to social drink across much of Africa. In Mozambique – as in many other parts of the continent – local beers have traditionally been sold in a standardised size of bottle known as a “media” (pronounced like the vowel sound in “head” rather than in “heed”.) People buy these medias by the bottle or by the crate, with the price including a deposit that is repaid in cash for each bottle returned. The bottles are then sent to a collection point to be sanitized, before being refilled, relabelled and resold. It’s not unlike the way the recycling of bottles works in Europe and other parts of the developed world. We may put them in a machine and receive a voucher rather than passing them to a person in a store and receiving cash, but the principle is the same. It’s a beautiful and perfect model of a circular economy. Until it gets messed up…

A traditional, returnable “media” from Mozambique.
A traditional, returnable “media” from Mozambique.

A broken circle

In the years since my uncle first arrived in Mozambique, many foreign brewers have entered the market, bringing with them a vast array of alternative-sized bottles for the consumption of beer. While locals and visitors alike no doubt appreciate having more choice in the beer they drink, the issue is that many of these bottles are not recyclable and reusable. They simply aren’t part of the circular economy of purchase, consumption, collection and redemption. The result? More bottles floating in the sea and lying on the ground – both whole and in pieces.

My uncle told me this story over a “media” at a traditional Portuguese-style café just outside Maputo. A little later we travelled further into the countryside and within minutes – as if to illustrate his point – we saw a bottle from a foreign-owned brewery lying on the ground (pictured below). My uncle says this is an all too common sight nowadays in a country where the incentive for return was once the critical link in the chain. Take away that incentive, and you disrupt a circular economy that has been working perfectly for decades.

Non-returnable bottles like this one pollute both land and water.
Non-returnable bottles like this one pollute both land and water.

Short term gains, long term losses

So what’s to be learned from this? I’m certainly not suggesting something as draconian or impractical as a return to only selling local beer in “medias.” But I am saying that foreign brewers – or any drinks manufacturer for that matter – should only sell their product in bottles that can be returned for a deposit. In places where attitudes towards and facilities for trash collection and recycling still need to be developed to the level we’ve become used to in Europe, it’s irresponsible of companies to remove that age-old incentive for recycling. We’re in an era now where we expect corporations to use their power as a force for positive change in the world, even if it costs them a little more in the short run. Supporting one of the oldest examples of the circular economy in existence would be a good place to start.