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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

When The Brewing Business Turns Deadly

Last Friday, once again Kenyans were shocked as they watched the death toll rise of consumers of the illicit brew – changaa in Shauri Moyo Estate in Nairobi’s sprawling Eastlands area; which as of today has reached 9 according to the Daily Nation.

Changaa is a local brew that resembles vodka, Tanzania’s Konyagi and Uganda’s Waragi. However unlike it’s East African sisters, changaa has not as yet been legalised.

This is not the first such case in Kenya. In June 2005, 49 people died in Machakos (Eastern Province) after they consumed an illicit drink suspected to have been laced with a poisonous chemical, and it seems that such cases are not going to end easily.

A regular changaa drinker was quoted in the media after learning that five of his friends had succumbed to the Shauri Moyo brew as saying it was "bahati mbaya", bad luck.  However he added: "I will go back to drinking busaa, although it is more expensive, (than chang'aa)".  

Indeed as John Mututho the Member of Parliament behind the recently passed Alcoholic Drinks Control Bill asserts, that the deaths and blindness were caused by extra chemicals added to the brew and “sold to unsuspecting poor Kenyans in the name of chang'aa".

Some commonly used additives include methanol and ethanol. Methanol has a high human toxicity. If ingested, as little as 10 milligrams can cause permanent blindness destroying the optic nerve while 30 ml is potentially fatal. Based on its abilities to change human consciousness, ethanol is considered a psychoactive drug. Death from ethyl alcohol consumption is possible when one’s blood alcohol level reaches 0.4% and a blood level of 0.5% or more is commonly fatal.

If the historic Alcoholic Drinks Control Bill which repeals the Chang’aa Prohibition and Liquor Licensing Acts receives presidential assent, this will mean that brewers of such liquor will have to face stringent quality standards and inspections. However with the current enforcement agencies so far being unable to cope in preventing future loss of life and blindness, it seems that more has to be done to ensure that the vendors adding dangerous substances to these brews are stopped.

Unfortunately the business opportunities in this sector remain attractive for those seeking to make a quick buck. Changaa is popular because it is cheap. A mug costs Sh10 (approximately 20 US cents). It also has the added attraction of being readily available, though not on  supermarket shelves nor established bars.

And it is not just slum dwellers who have taken to changaa. Crippling taxes have forced formal sector brewers to hike their prices and the informal sector brewers have benefited from more customers due to their low priced product. However, unlike Kenya Breweries or Keroche industries who have to go through rigorous quality standardisation and expensive marketing to manufacture their products and attract customers, changaa brewing is a home based cottage industry where not even a hygiene inspection happens. Word of mouth is generally the marketing tool, and if the price remains low – customer loyalty is assured.

For the Bill (if enacted) to make any significant inroads in preventing the deaths that occurred in Shauri Moyo from happening again, emphasis must be placed on ensuring proper regulatory structures are put in place. The National Campaign Against Drug Abuse Authority (NACADA) has so far been instrumental in making the public aware of the hazards of excessive alcohol consumption. However, the main thrust of their campaign has been the “don’t drink and drive” approach. This means nothing to the changaa drinkers whose main mode of transport is their legs.

Though the objectives of the Bill are noble, there has to be a holistic approach that also educates the changaa brewers and consumers on the dangers of additives. However, as these vendors generally tend to operate from their homes, the Bill does not give cognisance to their informal business culture. To say that brewers will have to be licensed will only mean that many will continue to operate illegally. For those that do get the licence from the proposed District Committee’s, the prescribed licence fee will be passed onto the consumers meaning loss of market.

Even the application for licence procedures will be an issue for brewers who will have to provide “a comprehensive proposal on the nature, orientation and other justification for the establishment of the alcoholic plant” amongst other requirements.

It remains to be seen whether the Bill will make a difference in the lives of the  changaa consumers and brewers. Ensuring that the barriers to entry remain attractive but also strictly enforcing quality standards by providing the relevant agencies with appropriate resources will most definitely prevent future loss of life.

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