Christian Thompson/AP
Bartenders prepare drinks inside as clients drink on the outdoor patio, at The Republic, in Accra, Ghana, June 18, 2013.

Toxic cocktail: Africa's binge-drinking problem and liquor firms

But emerging picture of the continent as a place of high drinking rates is not entirely accurate.

A version of this post originally appeared in A View from the Cave blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Africa, it turns out, is the new frontier for the booze industry.

Developing countries plus the right demographics make for the right market opportunity. The major beverage companies know it and they are making a move.

The thing is, Africa has a drinking problem, as reported by Jessica Hatcher for Time this month. Health systems are unable to cope with the increasing number of people affected by alcohol.

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 percent 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 under researched.

A closer look at the data reveals a more complicated story. Yes, the Africans that do drink have a high rate of alcohol abuse, but the overall drinking levels are right about on par with the rest of the world. That appears to be due to the fact that many Africans, particularly Muslims, do not drink at all. 

The fact-checking blog Africa Check took a closer look at the WHO data about drinking in Africa. The continent of Africa barely out-consumes (12.9 pints per person) the global average (12.8 pints). Seven countries, for some reason, are excluded from the Africa region: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Djibouti, Morocco, Somalia and Sudan. All are home to a significant number of Muslims that may further drive down the continent’s averages.

Americans and Europeans drink far more, on average, than Africans. In fact, more than 70 percent of Africans said they did not consume alcohol in the past year (compared to 17.7 percent in the US). Africa Check rightly points out that the Time article neglects to mention that an overwhelming number of Africans do not drink at all.

Alcohol abuse can have detrimental effects on individuals and societies. A thorough understanding of the problem is a prerequisite to intervention.

However, the claim that “Africa has a drinking problem” reveals less about Africa’s drinking habits than it does about Time’s perception of Africa.

The “Dark Continent” has merely been renamed the “Drunk Continent.”

However, amid the defense of the continent and the criticism of Ms. Hatcher’s reporting is an inconvenient fact: The pints per capita comparison is incomplete given that an estimated half of all Africans have never had a single drink. If that number is considered a safe estimate for non-drinkers, than the number of drinks consumed by a single person sees an increase.

Removing the people who are lifetime abstainers from the WHO data causes a dramatic shift. The average drinking American consumes 24 pints of alcoholic beverage per year. Meanwhile the average drinking Kenyan consumes just under 34 pints liters and South Africans take in 57 pints on yearly average. In the case of Kenya and South Africa more than half of all people do not drink at all. That reduces the per capita rate to levels that look to be lower than that of the United States.

What the information reveals is that Africa does and does not have a drinking problem.

The majority of people on the continent do not drink at all, but the few that do tend to consume at extremely high rates. The adjusted averages help to show why the binge drinking rate in Africa is the highest in the world.

Does Africa have a drinking problem? No. That is because it is not a monolith.

Are there Africans who abuse alcohol at worrying rates? Yes.

For there to be appropriate solutions to say the drinking of moonshine in Kenya (locally called chang’aa) it would make sense to understand the nature of the problem and where it exists. It is why the South African-owned SABMiller is trying to get more people to drink beer.

“If governments are looking to encourage a low-alcohol society, then actually beer ought to play a substantial role in that,” SABMiller’s Nigel Fairbrass said to Time.

There is reason to be skeptical. But beer companies are out to win markets and that means competing with illicit alcohol. That may end up being a good thing. Or it may be a part of reversing the number of people who do not drink in Africa.

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