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The Rise of African Bartender Guilds

Around the world, bartender associations cater to the education, upliftment, organisation and fellowship of bar-industry professionals, where members work together for their mutual benefit. Let’s take a look at what’s happening in Africa.

04 August 2023 · 12 min read
Leah van Deventer

The concept of a guild goes back as far as the 11th Century, when merchants and craftsmen started forming industry groups that enabled them to work together, and ultimately protect their interests, such as fair payment or better working conditions. The idea soon popularised, with guilds being formed by all manner of specific service providers, from chain-forgers to cobblers. The first bartender guild on record is the Club de Cantineros de Cuba – the Cuban Bartenders’ Club, later renamed the Cuban Bartenders Association – which was founded in 1924. It’s primary purpose was to elevate bartending skills in order to service the massive demand for quality cocktails on the island, suddenly imposed by visiting drink enthusiasts escaping Prohibition. After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, other guilds started popping up around the world, including the UK Bartender’s Guild in 1934, l’Association des Barmen de France (Association of Barmen of France) in 1938 and the US Bartenders Guild in 1948.

Generally, these guilds started out casually, before implementing formal leadership structures – such as president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and trustees. They’d also agree on a constitution, register with government bodies and decide on membership stipulations and fees.

While each served as platforms to address their unique domestic concerns, their shared raisons d’etre were to provide training and education, set industry standards, document cocktail recipes and allow members to network and socialise. By 1951, there were enough national guilds to create an umbrella guild, as a means of organising the organisations, and so the International Bartenders Association (IBA) was established. As of 2023, the IBA is 64 members strong, with guilds from Singapore to Serbia. But what of Africa?

Well, the first African bartender association was the South African Bartenders Guild (SABA) founded by Etienne Schlechter – brother of famed bartender Kurt Schlechter – in 2003. Schlechter ran SABA so successfully that not only was it invited to join the IBA (which has strict standards for admission), but in 2014 the emerging cocktail capital of Cape Town had the honour of hosting the World Cocktail Championships, the IBA’s annual member competition. Sadly, Schlechter’s international recognition bred envy among certain SABA members, who called for the presidency to rotate. The new president, however, was not up to the task, and neglected his duties; within a year, the decade-old guild fell into disarray, and ultimately lost its IBA membership. Meanwhile, cocktail culture was taking hold elsewhere on the continent, and other African nations began to see the value in organising themselves, to service the needs of their bartender communities.

In 2014, both the Association Sénégalaise des Barmens et Acteurs de l’Hôtellerie (Senegalese Association of Barmen and Hotel Actors) and Bartenders Guild Ghana emerged.

These were followed by the Bartenders’ Guild of Nigeria in 2016, and the Association Des Barmen de Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast Bartenders Association) in 2018. All four are currently undergoing observation periods with the IBA, which, if successfully completed, will result in membership, and afford them the opportunity to engage with guilds across the globe and compete in IBA competitions.

Needless to say, these will be important steps for the progression of Africa’s bar industry. While these African associations tackle similar issues to their counterparts, due to the developing nature of their cocktail scenes, their leaders, and their member bartenders, face a number of additional challenges.

Indeed, Stephen Kojo Aidoo’s reason for founding Bartenders Guild Ghana (BGG) was because when he entered the industry, he discovered that bartenders working in different bars had no relationship with each other, and didn’t even know each other’s names. On the contrary, they were working in complete silos, without any sense of community or the opportunity to learn from or support one another. There was also hardly any training available; while some venues did have internal training programmes, others didn’t, which was not only limiting for the bartenders, but it made the guest experience vastly different from bar to bar. When Aidoo proposed the idea of an association, he struggled to get buy-in, and it took a year to convince bartenders to sign up. Finally, once he had 30 members, he was able to approach brands to sponsor masterclasses.

Over the last 9 years he’s grown membership to a little over 300, yet training remains his primary objective. However, the lack of training facilities is a significant barrier, with his own workplace, Front Back Accra, providing the only solution. While brands have continued to offer some support, there simply isn’t the funding to level up, with Aidoo carrying the majority of the financial burden personally.

Over in Lagos, Emmanuel Oyira and Felix Olaniyi co-founded the Bartenders Guild of Nigeria (BGN) as a means to protect bartenders from exploitation, and to promote dignity in the profession. In this context, training was seen as a vital launchpad towards this objective. They also had a hard time getting started; many bartenders were suspicious of the guild’s intentions, thinking it might just be another way for them to be taken advantage of, or that it simply would not work, and it took two years to convince them otherwise. While the BGN now has 120 members, Oyira says that his quest to join the IBA is motivated by a need to further legitimise the association, and thus increase trust. Although it’s been slow going, both the BGG and BGN have had some significant successes.

Under his presidency, Oyira has managed to increase the average salary for experienced bartenders fourfold, from ₦25,000 to ₦100,000, with none of his member bartenders accepting jobs paying less than ₦100,000.

Naturally, this has gone a long way towards bartending being viewed as a worthwhile profession, as well as improving bartender pride and confidence. The BGN has also proved a reliable ally to its members in the case of workplace harassment or unfair dismissal, intervening on the member’s behalf or giving them free access to the guild’s lawyer if need be. Aidoo, on the other hand, managed to provide support for some 350 bartenders during the pandemic, in the way of money and food, by soliciting sponsorship from brands. The impact here was enormous, as none of the bartenders we able to earn during this time. Both the BGG and BGN have seen triumphs through their training, with their members continually excelling in cocktail competitions and representing their countries on the world stage. They share the goal of getting a bar school into West Africa, that could potentially service both countries, as there still isn’t one.

In addition to the four existing African bartender guilds, there are two fledging associations, in Kenya and Namibia.

In May 2023, Lele Vasino, Guy Brennan and Richie Barrow decided to start the Nairobi Bartenders Association (NBA), and they currently have about 30 members. They’re driven by a desire to make cocktail bars more accessible to bartenders, as bartender wages make drinking at high-end establishments near impossible, the costs of drinks being prohibitive. This means bartenders are both removed from the guest experience, and they have less opportunity to see what’s going on in other bars.

One possible route would be creating bar exchanges, where bartenders from different bars host each other; another would be finding ways for brands to offer sponsored bartender evening at bars. In Windhoek, Nande Ishuna has been mulling over the idea of a bartender association for some five years, and is in the process of pulling the trigger. His primary objective is to create a platform where bartenders can share knowledge and experiences, with an end to mutual upliftment. He’d also like to craft a space where they can elevate the standards of service they provide in the different establishments.

Ishuna cites standardised training and educational resources for bartenders as lacking, and says networking opportunities and platforms are limited. Similarly, career development opportunities and mentorship programmes are practically non-existent. Namibia also doesn’t have any cocktail competitions, or anything recognising bartenders at the moment.

Geographically, the country has the unusual challenge of quality bars being quite dispersed, often being located at luxury lodges in remote areas. This alone makes the bartender community quite fragmented.

As such, Ishuna would like to find a way to spread his guild out, to the borders of South Africa in the south, Angola in the north and Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana in the Kavango and Zambezi regions. Ishuna already runs a consultancy called Legends of Cocktails, which provides bar services and training, so he’s well placed to take the next step and facilitate upliftment through a bar guild. Both the Kenyan and Namibian associations are in contact with the IBA, which will hopefully provide support and guidance to them as they develop. If all goes well, we’ll have six African bar guilds in the IBA in the not too distant future. And perhaps the South African guild can be revived too… ———— The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Freepour.