Even though there has been no action to carry out the order, there are concerns about what would happen to one of the most thriving business sectors amidst the rising alcohol and drug abuse that has a prevalence as high as 23.8% in the East African country.
“(In regard to) bar and restaurant (businesses) let us give just one licence per town, the others let us shut them down […],” Gachagua said in January in Murang’a County, one of the worst hit areas in Mt. Kenya region where alcohol abuse has been a major burden.
According to the country’s anti-drug use agency – the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) – 12 out of 100 people in Kenya between the ages 15 and 65 consume alcohol. The rate is higher among younger adults (25-35) where 14% of them are users of alcohol.
Even though successive governments since 2001 have devoted time and resources to fighting illicit liquor – meaning brews made without a licence and at unapproved places – the appetite for the frothy water has been growing over time.
Manufactured legal alcohol is imbibed by at least seven out of 100 people in Kenya. The rate is higher in urban areas, with Nairobi recording 10.3%. Informal statistics indicate that Nairobi alone has more than 2,000 bars.
In Central Kenya, alcohol remains one of the most popular pastimes among the adult population, especially men. NACADA puts the alcohol use there at 12.8%. It has now become a culture with several families reporting at least one alcohol user, sometimes to the extent of addiction.
Gachagua is concerned that the younger generation is under threat. “I plead with you to do your job and save these young people, please swing into action,” he told county commissioners in the area. “Let us deal with these issues and save the next generation, otherwise we have a problem as a community.”
He mirrors what President William Ruto said in January. “Our children are under the threat of illicit liquor. Our provincial administration must work with our county governments so that we do not sacrifice our children, our society at the altar of money and things that are taking our society backwards.”
Gachagua’s declaration, however, caused an uproar among the stakeholders.
“The pronouncements [by the president and deputy president] point to a situation where the Hustler government is seen to be out of touch with the immediate needs of Kenyans which include the high cost of living and inflation,” Simon Njoroge, the chairman of bars, hotels and liquor traders association of Kenya (BAHLITA), tells The Africa Report.
The campaign against drug abuse estimates that chang’aa (a local term for usually illegally locally brewed spirits) has a prevalence rate of 3.4% nationally.
Central Kenya, however, leads on the prevalence of potable spirits at 4.1% against a national average of 2.5%.
The liquor traders association attributes this rise of unregulated alcoholic substances to “the availability of cheap alcohol manufactured by dealers of fake products,” says Njoroge.
BAHLITA has a membership of 54,000 stakeholders in the alcohol sector. This is one of the main sources of excise duty for the Kenyan government. In 2021, the Kenya Revenue Authority reported collecting KSh44.7bn ($340m), which was 34% of the total excise revenue collected that year.
The excise rate has been rising over the last few years with BAHLITA warning that it is pushing alcohol consumers away from what is legal and safe.
“If the amendments [to excise stamps] are approved as is, this will lead to an increase in the prices of beer and spirits with the citizens bearing the brunt,” Njoroge said in a statement to the media in February.
“It is unfortunate that consumption of safe alcohol has reduced by almost 50% and we have had to reduce the number of employees in the sector,” Njoroge added.
The traders’ body now wants the county and national governments to strengthen their enforcement of rules before blaming or even shutting down the industry players.
“It goes without saying that most of the illicit alcohol being sold around is done through unlicensed establishments, and even if we say that licensed entities are selling such alcohol, it is because the government has let its guard down and allowed the manufacturing of such alcohol,” he said.
Decentralisation of drug control and licensing to county governments has witnessed a sharp increase in the number of alcohol outlets and restaurants. Most bars, especially in urban areas, are anchor tenants for other businesses.
An ordinary bar and restaurant in Nairobi will be surrounded by auxiliary spots like a car wash, salons and barbershops, butchers and small restaurants. They employ hundreds of thousands of people: waiters, chefs, DJs, car wash attendants, cleaners, shoeshine professionals, watchmen, as well as barbers and salon operators.
“We support their plan to deal with illicit liquor, but what we are selling at our pubs has been approved by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS),” Anthony Mucheke, who leads the Kirinyaga county bar owners association, tells The Africa Report.
“It is unfortunate for him (Gachagua) to think of rendering people jobless when he knows publicans have employed about 10 people per pub,” Mucheke says.
Some families in the Mt. Kenya region have suffered the impact of alcoholism. Esther Kamau from Kiambu is a mother of four adult sons, one of them deceased. He committed suicide in 2018 after prolonged alcohol abuse. She is still bitter that the authorities have not cracked down on illegal brewers.
“The brewers themselves don’t consume the alcohol (they make), they just give it to others,” she says. “I don’t know what it is that they put in the brew.” Two of her surviving sons are also alcoholics, with only one withstanding the temptation.
Bootleg alcohol is dangerous because customers don’t know what is added to the brew.
“Those liquors being brewed next to rivers and mixed with other things are the ones that are causing blindness because you don’t know what chemicals are being used,” says Victor Okioma, CEO of NACADA.
“For the past 50 days, we have close to one million litres of illicit stuff that has been poured because of these efforts,” Okioma tells The Africa Report, referring to raids on alcohol dens in the first three months of the year.
Liquor licensing is the mandate of every county government. There has been a proliferation of alcoholic outlets over the last ten years of devolution that has heralded a whole new set of challenges.
“Unless the county governments ring fence revenues from licensing and invest in preventive education, research, training and capacity building of addiction professionals and rehabilitation, we will be overwhelmed,” said Okioma in a presentation to the Council of Governors in February.
The Gachagua order is untenable and bad for business, says University of Nairobi economist and lecturer Joy Kiiru.
“The challenge is if you implement that (order) you label a lot of businesses illegal. But they will continue to operate, how do you do that and expect them to pay taxes and levies?”
The Ruto administration wants to double tax revenues by June 2027, when it should mark its fifth year. “How do you label a business to be illegal and then turn around and want them to pay levies to national and local government? It is not possible,” Kiiru says.
With most towns dotted by several alcohol-selling entertainment joints, it would be difficult to enforce such an order. Njoroge says BAHLITA “are calling for the involvement of all stakeholders during the implementation of [such] government policies, [in order] to have a deeper look at the grievances and get a way forward that serves all […] interests without being seen as unfair to any party.”
There is no doubt that the East African country has an alcohol problem. NACADA statistics show that the behaviour is on the rise at primary and secondary schools. Primary school pupils meaning those aged 15 and below reported a prevalence of 2.6%. It was higher for high school students (14 – 19 years) at 3.8%.
“Gachagua is trying to live our lives, to tell us what to drink, where to drink and when,” Kiiru says. “Isn’t there a better way to empower communities to live their personal lives? He is fighting a losing battle.”
BAHLITA Secretary General Boniface Gachoka says that if the Gachagua decree is enforced, they will reduce their membership to 17,500.