In this blog post, Brenda exposes how the alcohol industry exploits small holder farmers in Africa.
Big Alcohol companies increase farmers’ dependence on cash crops, for instance those that can only be used for alcohol production. But that undermines food production and leaves farmers vulnerable to Big Alcohol’s unethical practices.
In this opinion article, Brenda shines a light on Big Alcohol practices that harm food security and entire livelihoods.

Small holder farming in many countries on the African continent is a hard task. Farmers are caught between farming for family nutrition needs and farming to earn money for other needs, such as clothing, school fees for their children, or healthcare.

Another difficult issue with small holder farming is the homogenous farming of crops such as maize or wheat which most of the times do not earn the farmers enough funds for their families’ needs. This is because the grain marketing boards’ prices for these crops are quite volatile and depend on the prevailing market. No consideration is placed on how much efforts, and inputs have been injected into the farming of these crops by the farmers such as weeding, labor, fertlizers etc. Not to mention if there is a drought when the farmers depend on rain for the crops to grow or too much rain for that matter. Small holder farmers depend on the weather to be just right so that they can yield a good harvest and these days that is hardly the case with the onset of climate change where we get too much of everything and this spoils crops. 

Considering all this, it was no wonder Kenyan farmers celebrated and became a “happy lot” when they got opportunities to farm barley supported by East African Breweries through their malting company East Africa Malting Limited (EAML). East African Breweries is a subsidiary of alcohol giant Diageo.

Farming for Big Alcohol came with strict stipulations, such as:

For one to be contracted, the farm should be within the zoned growing area of barley as per the company and the land should be above 15 acres for purposes of mechanization.”

The zoned area is Mau Narok in Nakuru County. It can best be described as a fertile swathe of land where all kinds of crops thrive – from carrots, potatoes, and cabbages, to tomatoes and onions. Nakuru is unofficially known as the bread-basket of Kenya. It’s so fertile that a conflict is unfolding between farming food and or cash crops.

Fact box: alcohol’s impact on food security

  1. Alcohol production, consumption fuels climate crisis.
  2. The production of alcoholic beverages is very resource-intensive and not environmentally sustainable.
  3. Alcohol productions leads to biodiversity loss
  4. Alcohol production is a threat to water security in many regions of the world.
    1. To get 1 liter of wine, 870 liters of water are needed.
    2. Per 1 liter of beer, 298 liters of water have to be used.

Read more about alcohol’s negative impact on the environmental SDGs, here.

The small holder farmer working with Big Alcohol opted for the cash crops: the farmers were compelled to get contracts from EAML because they are given seeds and it is “guaranteed” that their harvests will be bought by EAML. I mean, what a deal right? Who wouldn’t go for that?

The seeds in question are a type of malting barley and apparently cannot be used for food, namely Grace and Aliciana varieties of barley. In Ethiopia the same was introduced to raise the production of barley and tap into Ethiopia’s growing market for alcohol products, not food.

Big Alcohol just abandoned vulnerable farmers that hoped to be the ‘happy lot’.”

Brenda Mkwesha

However, in August 2020, due to Covid lockdowns in Kenya, bars were closed and apparently sales of alcohol fell. Therefore, EAML informed farmers they would not buy the crops. Big Alcohol just abandoned vulnerable farmers that hoped to be the “happy lot”.

I wonder what the farmers actually ended up doing with their barley harvest, the harvest that once had a guaranteed buyer – EAML. What happened to their earnings, their families’ welfare during the pandemic?

Big Alcohol did the same to South African farmers

Would these farmers have experienced the same fate had they, for example, farmed carrots, potatoes, or onions? What rights do they have where these contracts with EAML are concerned? Can they be reimbursed for the inputs they used on farming this malting barley? What compensation do they get?

Diageo subsidiary EABL issued a profit warning (approximate decline of 25%) in May 2020 to shareholders. But did they warn the farmers in Mau Narok?

Remarkably, in the end the profit decline wasn’t as severe as the alcohol industry feared. The sales decline was 10% in Kenya, with both Tanzania and Uganda actually seeing alcohol sales increases. By the end of 2021, sales had risen in all countries. Big Alcohol did well even during the pandemic. On the other hand, people and communities like small holder farmers did very poorly, suffering from a growing alcohol burden.

According to this report, overall profits in the region grew in 2020 despite the pandemic.

So how come the farmers were left holding their malting barley crops with no one to sell it to?

I wonder why it is that African governments allow this exploitation of farmers happen? Why aren’t there laws and policies to protect farmers from multinational giants, such as Diageo? 

There simply need to be more concerted efforts coming from communities, Ministries of Health, Finance, Trade, Agriculture, Labor as well as development actors and Civil Society to ensure that the citizenry are protected from exploitation. Alcohol is indeed not a normal commodity and it needs to be regulated and the interests of health, social and economic wellbeing need to be put first.