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Treasury, not the GSU, holds the key in war against toxic alcoholic drinks

Saturday July 4 2015

Eastleigh residents destroy alcohol found in various bars on June 4, 2015. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL

Eastleigh residents destroy alcohol found in various bars on June 4, 2015. PHOTO | EVANS HABIL | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By MURITHI MUTIGA
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No. You cannot stop people from drinking. Not even from drinking excessively. But you can most assuredly help them to drink clean alcohol that won’t send them to the hereafter shortly after they consume their favourite head lightener.

The crackdown on illicit liquor may be well meaning but it is certainly wrong-headed. And elitist too.

The government should look more closely at itself to understand what the cause of the crisis wrought by alcoholism among the youth is.

In 2006, Treasury removed excise duty on sorghum beer to offer people on the lower end of the market a clean and affordable alcoholic drink.

This was a smart move, probably inspired by someone familiar with the failure of America’s “noble experiment”, the effort to ban consumption of alcohol in the 1920s which was summed up by the wit who said – prohibition makes you want to cry and denies you the beer to cry into.

The ban created a thriving crime underground, saw a rise in consumption of liquor and fed the supply of bad quality and dangerous alcoholic beverages.

In Kenya, the removal of duty on sorghum beer was an immediate success. According to the Egerton University agriculture policy research institute, Tegemeo, there was a 26-fold increase in the purchase of sorghum by brewer EABL between 2009 and 2012.

About 60,000 sorghum farmers were contracted to grow the crop with guarantees they would get a market.  

The sorghum purchase portfolio at the main brewer went up from 474 tonnes to 12,715 tonnes in the three-year period between 2009 and 2012.

The benefits were magnified by the fact sorghum grows in dry areas, meaning that it is farmers in traditionally marginal zones who were benefiting from the boom in the purchase of sorghum beer.

Then what did Treasury do? In the 2013/14 budget, it introduced a 100 per cent excise duty on sorghum beer, leading to a steep rise in the cost of popular cheap beers such as Senator.

It was a baffling and ludicrous decision. Anthony Kioko of the Alliance for Green Revolution in Africa, which was working with farmers to help them improve sorghum production, told the Business Daily that the duty imposed would have major negative economic consequences, placing the cost at somewhere in the region of Sh10 billion.

Most of the farmers’ contracts were cancelled. And the usual failure of prohibition laws played itself out.

With people priced out of the market for affordable and clean liquor, the so-called second generation brewers thrived.

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EABL, too, decided to focus on stiff drinks as this line from an October 2014 story in Business Daily illustrates: “The listed brewer has since said it will bank on sales from spirit brands to make up for the lost revenues (following the decline in sales of sorghum beer).”

The government needs to be more creative in this battle than taking hammers into small business premises. The key to winning the war lies in the hands of policymakers, not the GSU.

We should learn from neighbouring countries such as Uganda and Tanzania where people have access to clean, cheap and safe drinks such as Konyagi and Waragi.

Removing duty on sorghum beer would be a good start. Taking away the colonial ban on traditional brews such as Mnazi and Muratina and regulating their production would also help.

Everyone except the greedy crooks