Cheap beer, high profits, huge problems…

Recently in Uganda the Alcohol Industry has posted more profits that any other commercial enterprise. In the six months leading up to December 2010,  New Vision Newspaper  reported that East African Breweries (EABL) posted a 22% growth in pretax profit (165 billion shillings) and that the Great Lakes region is becoming an important market for the group, with sales growing by 221%. Such a report is indicative that numbers are going up in East Africa in terms of alcohol use.

The Ugandan Finance Minister encouraged the use of cassava as a raw material in a 2009/10 budget speech in order to lower costs of beer prices and consequently reduce the tax on locally grown materials from 60 per cent to 40 percent. This tax break is one of the biggest tactics the breweries have used to keep the general population and key government people blinded about the devastating effects of alcohol on the country.

The breweries have seen their profits soar into the double digits, whereas the majority of Ugandan consumers and farmers have been left starving and in abject poverty. The breweries argued that “producing cheaper, clear beer would convert people from indigenous alcohol like tonto, a local brew made out of bananas, as well as local gins like kasese and waragi, which can be dangerous and even deadly to people when abused.  They further argued that producing cheaper, clear bear would boost cassava acreage in the country and make it a more valuable cash crop for farmers. Both the Nile and East African Breweries employ over 15,000 farmers.

If these benefits are so real, why are these areas so persistently plagued with famine? Why aren’t real incomes trickling into their households? These very regions in Eastern Uganda have also recorded one of the highest levels of alcohol consumption. Central, East and Western regions are also beginning to face the blunt of early and excessive alcohol use. Making beer cheaper is resulting in exploitation and increased burdens on food security, young people are resorting to using alcohol instead of becoming productive members of the labor force.

Indeed, turning to major food crops to make beer has started to interfere with food security in Uganda.  Household heads are selling all their food to get money and end up using it to buy premier cheap beer and other local gins. Because husbands (and wives) are spending more time using alcohol, consumption is seriously affecting their contribution in terms of digging and planning for food production. Most of their productive time is spent using alcohol and then nursing hangovers. Alcohol consumption has been made so cheap and easy to accessible by way of small sachet packages (which fit into a shirt pocket); many young people now are found drunk in villages and small trading centers in the wee hours of the morning. Bars and places start selling alcohol as early as 8am, yet this early morning time could be translated into food production time.

Generally food production has gone down since most of it has been left to women; more young people are caught stealing food because they did not take advantage of the rains when they came, to plant food for themselves.

The burden imposed by excess production and sales of alcohol, accompanied by unethical selling methods by the corporate alcohol industry, including unregulated and misleading advertisements, discounting alcohol prices to minors of high alcohol content, hosting free alcohol promotions and disregarding the law is beginning to stretch government resources.

Uganda is one of the top countries with high road accident density in East Africa.  Policing roads against drunk driving is quite a huge problem for the drivers, the accident victims and their families.  We can also see an increase of highly risky sexual behavior which leads to more HIV/ AIDS infections among the young people. Moreover, Alcohol is number in domestic violence and again is also mentioned as number one cause of poverty in the country.

They make the Money and we pick the problem.

The time has come for the Ugandan government to increase taxation on Alcohol as one way to discourage use of alcohol and make it more difficult to buy. The time has come to regulate the sales times and places, eliminate small packaging of alcohol products, and regulate density distribution beer selling shops (liquor stores) and places. An alcohol regulated policy environment would provide a  mid-solution for development and help Ugandan citizens escape famine as well as numerous other ills left by the alcohol industry.

For more reading:

Check out my paper on the realtion of alcohol and famine in Uganda, 2011

UYDEL report on the State of Alcohol Abuse in Uganada, 2008

The NGO Perspective on Alcohol Policy Regulations in Uganda, 2010