Africa’s Drinking Problem: Alcoholism on the Rise as Beverage Multinationals Circle
Monday, August 12, 2013
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.