In an effort to improve public health and safety, Kenya has legalized a popular beverage known as chang'aa.

A dangerous brew

For years, the Kenyan government has fought a losing battle against a local form of moonshine called chang'aa.  Consumption of the drink has become a minor public health crisis is the East African nation.  

Brewed illegally, chang'aa is infamous for causing blindness and killing its users.  Last month, 17 people died in one weekend after drinking a poisonous mixture in Nairobi's Kibera slum.

Despite increased efforts, police raids on breweries and pubs have failed to reduce the popularity of the drink among Kenya's poorer citizens, who can often buy it for less than $1 per glass.  This increasing frustration has prompted a new strategy to fight chang'aa: Legalization.

On Wednesday, President Mwai Kibaki signed the Alcoholic Drinks Control Bill, repealing the Chang'aa Prohibition Act and allowing the potent drink to enter the mainstream market.  Proponents of the bill hope standardization of the drink will prevent future deaths from bad brews.

A spokesperson for local spirits producer Kenya Wine Agencies Limited, Gordon Mutugi, welcomed the government's efforts, saying Kenyans would be safer with the new regulations. "We welcome the spirit of the bill because what the bill seeks to do is to control the illicit brew," he says, "which you know very well has been a menace for the country.  At the same time it brings in some control mechanisms for the production, for the packaging, even the consumption."

New regulation requirements

The new law requires chang'aa to be brewed in licensed facilities and packaged in glass bottles larger than 250 milliliters.  The regulations also prohibit the sale of the brew to Kenyans under the age of 18.

But Mutugi and others have raised concerns the bill might not end the illegal production of traditional spirits.

Part of the problem is the definition of chang'aa.  The Alcoholic Drinks Control Bill does not clearly define Chang'aa because there is no standard for the drink.

Though commonly made from fermented corn or sorghum, Chang'aa can be brewed many different ways.  The drink's only defining quality is its extremely high alcohol content, commonly achieved by adding chemicals such as methanol or jet fuel.

A source within Kenya's Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation worried that legalizing chang'aa would have no impact on the illicit market.  Requiring the drink to meet basic food and safety standards would eliminate the use of dangerous chemicals, but could alter the effects felt by drinkers.  Without those effects, the regulated drink could be ignored by habitual users.

Legalization and commercial production a solution?

Member of Parliament for the Chepalungu District, Isaac Ruto, expressed similar concerns to VOA.  The representative said the bill sent the wrong message and would encourage increased use of chang'aa.

"Chang'aa has no standard formulation that in my view can be marketed. It varies from one end to the other end.  I know they are trying to cure that by making it commercially produced, but I think it is sending the wrong message.  They will still use the current methods, which include putting deadly chemicals in it and then sell it in the pretext that the Chang'aa they are selling is the one produced in some regularized way," Ruto said.

Ruto said he was considering an amendment to the bill that would prohibit chang'aa use, while retaining what he saw as the bill's positive alcohol controls.

In addition to legalizing chang'aa, the bill provides addiction treatment services for heavy users and outlaws the sale of alcoholic beverages in vending machines.  The bill also establishes a one-year jail sentence and a fine of nearly $2,000 for anyone convicted of selling alcohol to minors.