The miracle of Kibaki’s beer-drinking nation

8 minutes

We loved hearing our late maternal uncle relive his youthful exploits, especially on his drinking days.

As a randy youth of the 1970s, my uncle really loved his drink.

Before his death, he had stopped drinking and embraced the church and later, feeling cheated by the hypocrisy of the clergy, went full circle to become a sulking non-believer.

Fortunately, he never went back to his bottle. Instead, his drinking days of yore made for the most fascinating fireside stories in front of his hearth in Busia County.

One such tale left in me an indelible impression of how beer is a drink for those who have money to splurge.

And it was not until recently, way after I had become a financial journalist and learnt about the consumer price index (CPI), that I bumped into numbers that convinced me that beer is truly the epitome of consumerism. At least in Kenya. 

My uncle’s husky voice, which would occasionally be interspersed with a rapturous laughter as he recalled the good old days, still rings loud in my head.

He told us that he and his cheeky friends were not very popular at school. The teachers hated their guts. At an early age, they already had a nose for money. They earned an extra coin by burning and selling charcoal.

Flush with the cash they made from selling charcoal, my young uncle and his friends stormed into the only pub at Matayos shopping centre, a few miles from Busia town.

Once inside, they would head straight for the unoccupied counter where they would boisterously perch themselves on the counter stools and order beers. And, boy, didn’t they drink by the barrels?

This would be when everyone in the whole village was broke.

Then their teachers, dead broke because mwezi iko kwa corner, would come sauntering into the pub, nosing for a generous reveller to help them wet their dry throats. 

At this point, my uncle, who had maintained a stoic face all along would break into a hysterical laughter. And we would helplessly join him, raising a chorus of laughter that cut through the dead of the night.

“For once, the teachers were at the mercy of their cheeky students,” he said. 

Drink for the moneyed

Growing up in a poor neighbourhood in Eastlands reinforced this belief that beer was a drink for the moneyed; an indicator of power and influence. 

A lot of people around me, including my father, drank mostly traditional brews or cheap spirits.

In Busia District, where my uncle hailed from, most people in the 1970s drank cheap traditional brews like Chang’aa and Busaa.

And my uncle was quite an imbiber of these traditional brews, but on such special occasions when he had a windfall, he would switch to a ‘fine’ drink.

Decades later when I too started drinking, beer remained an alcoholic drink of choice for those with deep pockets. Beer drinking was part of the luxurious lifestyle we dreamed of attaining when we grew old and had money of our own.

The dream of drinking beer with well-to-do friends in a popular entertainment joint went hand-in-hand with that of owning a home and driving a nice car.

In high school, our drinking experiments involved getting high on sachets of Vodka which we bought at Sh10 each.

Once, while in a club in Westlands, Nairobi, I curiously watched as a classmate, whose father was a rich pilot, downed a few bottles of beer while playing the game of pool. It was such an exotic spectacle for a peasant boy like me who grew up in Eastlands, Nairobi, watching young people with jobs drown in potent concoctions of cheap kill-me-quick drinks because they could not afford beer or whiskey.

My father, who was an artisan at Kenya Railways, also drank cheap traditional brews on lean days of the month. Only rich people, I guess, could afford to drink beer every day baada ya kazi, as EABL’s advert for Tusker Lager exhorted us.

But my father would never put cheap liquor to his lips when he got paid. Instead, having received his salary, father would stick around the shopping centre drinking beer with friends.

Then, starting around 2001 things began to change. Even in fairly poor neighbourhoods such as ours, bars and pubs, mushroomed. And despite grumbles of how tough the times were, I remember people, young and old, consuming crates of beers in these pubs.

Suddenly, it appeared as though beer had become a commonplace drink.

I forgot about this explosion in beer consumption until recently when I bumped into some interesting data while doing some research for an article.

Private final consumption

A study by the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis (KIPPRA) which looked at the effect of excise duty, popularly known as the sin tax, on alcohol consumption showed that beer sales as a fraction of private final consumption had risen sharply between 2000 and 2012 before numbers started going down.

Beer consumption as a percentage of private final consumption rose sharply from two percent in 2000 to a peak of four percent in 2008. Thereafter, it dropped to three percent in 2009, perhaps due to the post-election violence of 2008 which had a major impact on the economy.

Private consumption includes all purchases made by consumers, such as food, housing (rents), energy, clothing, health, leisure, education, communication, transport as well as hotels and restaurant services.

Beer consumption as a total of private consumption

It then rose to 3.5 percent in 2012 before it began a downward spiral to touch 2.5 percent in 2021, mostly due to increased excise duty as the Jubilee administration raided alcoholic beverages to bridge its yawning budget deficit.

There is no doubt that the good days for the beer traders were the Kibaki years.

Kibaki’s White Cap

I wondered whether the late President Mwai Kibaki, whose favourite beer brand was White Cap, had somehow initiated Kenyans into his aristocratic manners which also included playing golf.

Kibaki, Kenya’s third head of state, was president between 2003 and 2012. He inherited an economy which had been run down by his predecessor Daniel Arap Moi. Moi had been in charge for 24 years.

Former President Mwai Kibaki.

Kibaki immediately embarked on rebuilding the economy culminating into some kind of economic miracle with his tenure being critically acclaimed as Kenya’s golden years.

At the heart of this economic rebirth was the expansive role of the private sector. It is the private sector—households and firms—which invested and also consumed goods and services. Not the government, which has increasingly been funded through increased taxation but has barely resulted in the creation of more jobs.

If Kenyans were not selling mitumba, secondhand clothes, at Gikomba market, they were trading in shares at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE). Petrol stations were opened in the furthest points of the country, because suddenly a lot of people had acquired cars and needed to fuel them.

Ordinary people bought homes, connected their homes to the electric grid, bought smartphones, computers, fridges, and TVs. 

These golden years, between 2005 and 2015, a new World Bank report noted, also experienced the most reduction in poverty rates and coincided with a period when Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita (per person) grew faster with private consumption, as opposed to public spending, playing a bigger role in the growth.

One such private consumption was beer sales. More money meant more beer, or vice-versa.

In my years as an economic reporter, I came across the term consumer price index (CPI), a sort of cost of living index which is used to compute inflation, or the changes in consumer prices over a 12-month period.

Using a fine comb, I went through all the items in the CPI and their weights to the different income groups in Nairobi.

In the last 10 years to 2020, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) computed afresh the weights of items in a Kenyan household’s CPI, or a typical shopping basket.

The new CPI showed that the weight of beer in the shopping basket for a typical middle-income household in Nairobi had risen nearly 10 times for the middle class and over seven-fold for the rich.

Nairobi’s middle-class, according to the KNBS, comprises individuals who earn a monthly income of between Sh46,355 and Sh185,395.

The only expenditure components that are heavier than beer in the middle-class’ shopping basket include hotel accommodation, mobile phone airtime and rent for a two-bedroom house, according to KNBS.

Expanded middle class

Ah, yes, beer consumption is not for the rich but for the middle class. The middle class is also known as the consumer class.

This group of an economic class has a little more disposable income than the lower income group and thus, unlike the poor, tends to spend more on non-essentials, including beer, Uber, fast-food, or Netflix subscription.

So, that really was Kibaki’s magic: expanding the middle class who then took copious amounts of beer even in our poor neighbourhoods.

But the truth is that beer, in most beer drinking nations in Europe and Europe, is not such an aristocratic drink.

Indeed, the Greeks and Romans, who drank only wine are said to have despised beer drinkers describing them as ‘barbaric’ or ‘uncivilised.’

The rich drink expensive wines and whiskeys in high-end hotels. But the rich are not that many, and so their consumption of these fine drinks will barely help the economy to grow.

Beer, whose biggest market today is China due to a combination of income growth and liberalisation, is the beverage with the biggest impact on the economy.

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