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February 17, 2019

Sober Up Mr President, There's no drink crisis

Members of public watch as illicit brew is destroyed on the road at Westlands . Photo/Monicah Mwangi
Members of public watch as illicit brew is destroyed on the road at Westlands . Photo/Monicah Mwangi

Does Kenya have an alcoholism problem? Going by current media reports, one would be forgiven for believing that the country is caught in the throes of drinking crisis fuelled by the availability of cheap, illicit alcohol. Almost daily we are treated to dire warnings of an entire generation being lost to booze. The situation, particularly in the former Central Province is said to be so bad that President Uhuru Kenyatta issued directives to MPs and the citizenry to "move from door to door" closing all outlets selling the illicit drinks.

The result has been widespread destruction and looting of business premises by rampaging mobs under the guise of implementing the directive. And though the President has attempted to walk back his fierce talk by urging that property is respected, the damage has already been done.

The dubious legality of the President’s actions aside, there is little publicly available data to support the idea of a widespread crisis of intoxication among young men in Kenya. According to the WHO’s Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health 2014 which cites data from 2010, nearly eight in 10 Kenyans aged 15 and above had not had a drink in the previous 12 months. This figure includes the half of all similarly aged males who were lifetime abstainers and another sixth who appear to have given it up. In all, nearly seven in 10 males and nine in 10 females over 15 were not partial to alcohol.

In fact, Kenya would be the East Africa Community’s designated driver, with between 40 and 45 per cent of Tanzanians, Rwandans, Burundians and Ugandans being alcohol consumers.

Among those Kenyans who partook, only 7.4 per cent had taken more than 60 grams or more of pure alcohol (roughly the equivalent of three bottles of Tusker) on at least one occasion in the previous 30 days. These figures do not in themselves appear to show that young Kenyans are drinking themselves into an early grave.

Also in 2010, the country’s National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse conducted a study of alcohol consumption in the central region. It found that more than two-thirds of those surveyed were lifetime abstainers. The prevalence rate measured by use in the past 30 days, was higher than the national average, but not by much (about five per cent). However, compared to 2007, the prevalence rate among men aged 15-64 had shot up by 11.5 per cent. Clearly, more men had taken to drinking. However, when broken down into the several districts, the data revealed that consumption in some was much higher than in others, indication localised problems, especially in Muranga.

What they were drinking is also interesting with figures showing that about half were imbibing first generation alcohol which, according to NACADA, can be assumed to be of hygienic standard and moderate potency. Second generation alcohol and chang'aa, which were the cause of much concern, accounted for 40 and 1.5 percent respectively, while the rest, just under 10 per cent drank traditional brews.

Sure there are localised pockets of crapulence in the country and the folks there require help. However, it is not accurate to assert a generalized or nationwide crisis of alcoholism. Further, it is not illegal to be an alcoholic and we should not treat such people, and the legitimate enterprises that are licensed to sell booze, as if they were criminals.

Illicit brew presents an entirely different problem. It is important that we define what is illicit. It certainly does not appear that the trade in the much maligned second-generation alcohol is actually illegal. When the Kenya Bureau of Standards suspended 385 brands, it also acknowledged that they were legal, with its Managing Director saying the concern was with counterfeiters.

Undoubtedly, adulterated and bootleg hooch has caused many deaths over the years. Chang’aa, a major target of the current crackdown. But across the country, it takes many forms and is not always illegal or dangerous. In a recent article in the Star, John Githongo avers that chang’aa brewed in a western Kenya pot is much safer and of much better quality than its central Kenya counterpart. It is also consumed much more widely consumed with little of the ill-effects. It also bears reminding that though most chang’aa is made illegally, its production and sale can be a legitimate enterprise. The 2010 Alcoholic Drinks Control Act repealed the Chang’aa Prohibition Act, which had made it illegal to produce or consume traditional liquors.

The fact that all chang’aa, along with the nebulous category of second generation booze, appears to be treated as if it were illicit bespeaks both of the confusion at the heart of the current clampdown and the unacknowledged motives driving it. The confusion arises from, as we have seen, a failure to properly identify the problem we are dealing with.

The ongoing crackdown is thus will compound, not solve, the problem. To do so, the government must first recognise that Kenya does not have a drinking problem. It has a policy and regulation problem. It is the policy regime that creates perverse incentives for the adulteration of drinks, killing many. This will only be cured by an enlightened, rational, evidence-based approach that prioritizes, not prohibition, but affordable, legal and safe booze for the poor. In short, the best way to deal with Kenya’s alcohol problem is for the government to sober up.


This is an abridged version of an article appearing in the August issue of The Platform magazine

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