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Friday, 24 November, 2000, 20:00 GMT
Kenya's illegal alcohol industry
An illicit distillery in the forest
An illicit distillery in the forest
By Dr Justin Willis, social historian

Traditionally, people in Kenya have made a variety of fermented alcoholic beverages.

Most of these drinks are between 3% and 7% alcohol by volume - the equivalent of a weak beer to a rather weak wine.


The law has encouraged these deaths, through high taxes on bottled beer and through the banning of less dangerous forms of informal sector alcohol

Sorghum, honey, sugar-cane, the sap of palm trees and many other substances have been used in fermentation; in recent times, tea leaves, pineapples, and processed sugar have joined the long list of popular ingredients.

Distillation - boiling a fermented drink, catching the steam and condensing it to make a drink (spirit) that is much stronger - was not a traditional technique.

It became widespread in Kenya during the 20th century, although it has always been illegal.

Traditional drink ban

Distillation has spread partly because spirits are seen to be modern and potent, but also because the Kenyan Government effectively banned the trade in traditional fermented drinks in 1979.

Still in operation
An oil drum makes an efficient still for spirits coupled with a fire
People still do make and sell drinks like grain beer and palm wine, but it is a risky business; distilled drinks offer higher profits for the risks involved, and are easier to smuggle.

So people who cannot afford expensive, highly taxed bottled beer turn instead to illicitly distilled liquor.

This has become a huge business; the trade in these informal-sector drinks - fermented and distilled - is probably five times as large as the legal trade in bottled beer, wines and spirits.

Corruption

It is of enormous economic importance to many, from those (many of them women) who produce these drinks on a small scale to the bigger operators who arrange the transport and marketing.

Woman brewing grain beer
A woman makes grain beer - mild but illegal
It is a trade which breeds corruption, as administrators and police turn a blind eye in return for a share of the profits.

And the trade has also bred its own, lethal, hazards.

Fermented drinks - grain beer, palm wine, and so on - offer quite limited health risks.


Tankers bring [industrial alcohol] to Nairobi from the west; on the way, some of them stop, and some of the contents are siphoned off

Nor is home distillation necessarily dangerous, although illicit distillates vary alarmingly in strength and can contain impurities which pose cumulative, long-term, risks to health.

Most alcohol consumed in Kenya is made in illicitly; clearly, not all of this drink is dangerous, or the population would long ago have been decimated.

Industrial spirit menace

But there is one real, deadly, menace: the diversion into the drinks market of alcohol intended for industrial use.

This spirit is very strong, and it often also contains forms of alcohol which rapidly cause poisoning.

Woman making fermented drink
Fermented drinks are also illegal - this is being made with sugar and yeast
It is also cheap - as it is virtually untaxed - and is in ready supply from the sugar industry in western Kenya.

In the 1980s, its production was encouraged, as it was blended with petrol to provide vehicle fuel.

Tankers bring it to Nairobi from the west; on the way, some of them stop, and some of the contents are siphoned off.

'Power' peril

This industrial alcohol enters the illicit drink market in a variety of ways.

It may just be diluted and flavoured a little with sugar and caramel; it may be added to fermented drinks to make them stronger; the most sophisticated traders may even attempt to re-distil it.

But it is always dangerous.

relatives await news
More than 400 fell victim to an adulterated illicit drink in Nairobi in November
It is these drinks - which Kenyans sometimes call 'power' drinks, in ironic reference to the role of industrial alcohol as a motor fuel - which have been responsible for the tragic poisonings and multiple deaths of recent years.

So large is the trade, and so extensive the corruption involved, that the law is powerless.

Indeed, the law has encouraged these deaths, through high taxes on bottled beer and through the banning of less dangerous forms of informal sector alcohol.

In neighbouring Uganda, the authorities permit the trade in fermented liquor and turn a resolutely blind eye to widespread (and theoretically illegal) small-scale distillation.

This policy brings its own problems, but at least Uganda has in recent years escaped the appalling incidents of mass poisoning which have ruined the lives of many Kenyan families.

Dr Justin Willis is Senior Research and Development Associate at the University of Durham's History Department. He has made a special study of alcohol in East Africa.

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See also:

16 Nov 00 | Africa
Kenya's poison brew toll rises
18 Feb 00 | South Asia
Illegal alcohol deaths
09 May 99 | South Asia
Deadly whisky claims 113 lives
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