Africa’s Drinking Problem: Alcoholism on the Rise as Beverage Multinationals Circle

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Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Men drink beer at a bar in Soweto, South Africa, on Aug. 8, 2012

In Kenya, depending on whom you ask, John Mututho is either a hero or a villain, but in a country consuming ever more alcohol, he is certainly a household name. In 2010, Mututho won a battle with the beverage industry to implement Kenya’s first alcohol-control act. It is known as the Mututho law and honors his brother, who died as a result of alcoholism. After his brother’s death in 2007, Mututho dedicated himself to the issue with a focus and vigor rare in Kenyan politicians pursuing social goals. But instead of being celebrated, Mututho was punished. In the following elections this year, he didn’t even win his party ticket. A Nairobi social worker who is forever mopping up the damage of alcoholism chuckles fondly as he tells me this story, as if it encapsulates his country today. “Do we drink because we’re Kenyan or are we Kenyan because we drink?” he ponders. “That is the question.”

His concerns are not limited to Kenya. Africa has a drinking problem. It is the new darling of multinational beverage companies looking to drive profits in an increasingly booze-saturated world. The continent has the perfect emerging-market conditions: a relatively small amount of commercial alcohol is being consumed; there is a rising middle class with disposable income; a huge market of young people is about to come of age; and there is an informal moonshine sector, up to 4 times the size of the commercial market, that governments would like to control.

But Africa is in no shape to cope with an influx of alcohol. Primary health care providers aren’t equipped to deal with the health effects. There is little or no recourse for irresponsible acts like driving while intoxicated. Chronic corruption means every new control measure is an opportunity for police to solicit bribes. While average per capita consumption figures (excluding South Africa) are very low, Africa has the highest proportion of binge drinkers in the world: 25% of those who drink drink too much, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Beverage companies dismiss that figure as poorly sourced, and certainly the problem is underresearched.

Then there are the problems of demographics. The “youth bulge” — a phenomenon a large share of the population is made up of children and young adults — helps ensure that many young drinkers are going to be unemployed. And the alcohol industry’s goal to get moonshine consumers drinking commercial brews is, according to critics, just a different version of the same problem.

One of the most vocal of those critics is Bill Sinkele. A former alcoholic originally from the U.S., he has worked for 18 years with some of Kenya’s most marginalized groups, from prostitutes on the coast to alcoholic kids in the capital’s slums. He has just concluded research in Kenya for the WHO that shows underage drinkers know what brand they’ll drink well before they hit the legal drinking age of 18. “The alcohol industry is prepping these kids!” he says. Billboards in the capital Nairobi present “the Snapp sisters,” three shimmering women who look like a young Destiny’s Child drinking Snapp, a sugary apple-flavored alcopop. The advertisements are aimed at women, a group in which, according to Sinkele, alcoholism is rising alarmingly.

Governments are starting to address the issue, not least because it could damage their growing economies. Twelve percent of those ages between 15 and 24 are hooked on alcohol, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta announced at the country’s second alcohol-and-drug-abuse conference in June. He says the country faces a critical challenge, but there is a disconnect between policy and implementation. Members of the audience at the conference took turns to stand up and berate a senior police officer following a panel discussion. According to industry delegates, alcoholism, protection rackets and the fallout from 24-hour drinking “canteens” are all problems that exist within the Kenyan police force. If that’s the case, they argued, what hope is there for implementing laws? The debonair officer was unruffled: “If our officers are doing that and you’re not letting their bosses know, then you’re not assisting,” he said.

One of the things Sinkele finds most astonishing is that multinational companies are getting tax breaks for selling beer to people on the breadline. While governments in the West are considering minimum pricing standards for alcohol, in nearly a dozen countries across Africa, amid soaring food prices, governments are applying tax breaks to booze, which, according to the WHO, kills more people than AIDS or tuberculosis. “It’s better-assisted suicide,” Sinkele says.

In Kenya, multinational beverage company Diageo’s second best-selling beer, Senator Keg, is served in 300-ml servings for around 30 U.S. cents. The company, which reportedly controls a staggering 97% of the beer market, until June enjoyed a 100% tax exemption on Senator to keep it cheap. “This gave consumers a safer alternative to unregulated and bad-quality brews, which often lead to fatalities,” says Brenda Mbathi, group corporate-relations director of East African Breweries Ltd., which is a subsidiary of Diageo. Sinkele says the new government realized the tax break was nonsensical, which is why they rescinded it.

Deflecting allegations of exploitation, companies are operating a host of social enterprises, which also secure large tax breaks. SABMiller, one of the world’s largest brewers, has pioneered Impala, the first beer made from cassava, a tough, drought-resistant root grown across Africa that boosts local economies. SABMiller says the product was designed to compete with illicit alcohol, not necessarily to provide a social service. SABMiller is also selling a brand of chibuku, a popular fermented brew with a texture like gruel, in 10 markets. “If governments are looking to encourage a low-alcohol society, then actually beer ought to play a substantial role in that,” SABMiller’s Nigel Fairbrass says. Beverage manufacturers don’t want alcoholics, after all — they want loyal customers for life.

Alcohol consumption is likely to increase, as seen in South Africa, one of the world’s heaviest drinking nations. The wealthier demographic, the so-called rising Africans, will have the means to cope with it, but the rest — those referred to by Oxford economist Paul Collier as “the bottom billion” — might not. In Mathare, one of the Nairobi’s notorious slums, people are forced to pick over rubbish alongside pigs. The Mathare River running the length of the slum is not a water source but a toxic waste-laden vein. On the river’s southern bank, the largest of four illegal moonshine distilleries runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. “It’s the cash crop of Mathare,” says James Anunda, taking time out from manning the scalding barrels of distillate. He is only 18 years old, but his swollen fingers attest to five years in the business.

This 50-proof moonshine, known as chang’aa, tastes filthy, but nearly everybody there drinks it. The distillery exports to the neighboring province, turns over close to $1 million per year and employs more than 100 people. The lucky ones become “tycoons” and employ younger men to “cook.” Others atrophy. The filthy black mud of the riverbank is dotted with casualties of chang’aa, those either red-eyed and unsteady or fast asleep. Workers at the distillery claim never to have produced a fatal brew. It is later, they say, when it’s mixed with embalming fluid, fuel, or even antiretrovirals, that the problems start. Police come to Anunda’s distillery every day to collect an average of $14.50. Occasionally they stage a raid, then return the next day for their bribe.

On a given night, little tin shacks with no windows are filled with drinkers seeking escape from their lives. A dollar buys you eight watered-down shots. Drinkers measure their alcohol capacity in shillings. “I’m a hundred and fifty, then, blackout,” one man says, demonstrating it with a flourish. His regular objective, he says, is to accrue sufficient funds to reach that point.