NGOZI – In the north of Burundi, new brands of “beer” have sprouted recently. They are produced locally in a multitude of small breweries or imported from neighboring countries in little plastic bags.

These alcoholic beverages are three times less expensive than normal brews – $0.30 for 50ml – and very strong, containing up to 40% alcohol compared to the usual 5-7%.

And since binge drinking is already a problem in Burundi, the health effects of these new ersatz beers are often catastrophic.

The new beers are made with banana juice, sugar and honey, mixed with citric acid. So on top of the usual liver, pancreatic and other diseases and cancer types that afflict moderate and heavy drinkers, the beers are worsening Burundi’s diabetes problem.

One in ten Burundians is already a diabetic, but according to the president of the Diabetes Association of Ngozi, a city in northern Burundi, that number is climbing rapidly, even in rural and remote areas.

The situation is alarming, but to this day, no one has bothered checking the quality of the beers produced by the small local breweries.

Burundian banana beer - Photo: Dave Proffer

These breweries don't even have labs for basic analyses: “It's not easy to obtain the paperwork necessary to start a brewery. Not only is it expensive but it's also complicated. You need to know how to 'play it,'" says a former brewery owner.

By “playing it,” he means paying bribes to the relevant authorities.

He adds that certain ingredients mentioned on the label – banana is usually named as the main ingredient, although the levels of sugar and honey are much higher – don’t always correspond to what’s really in the bottle. “That's why beers will sometimes taste different,” he says.

Drunk and deadly

The amateur brewers have already had a visible impact in the cities. In the poorest neighborhoods, dirty, flea-bitten men spend their day drinking, turning into burdens for their wives.

Some of these women are fed up: “I've reached the point where I don't feed my husband anymore, sometimes we don't even share the same bed!” says a woman from Ngozi’s Kigarama neighborhood. Drunk men beat up or even kill their wives. Youths have also started drinking these strong beers in the street, as if they were drugs.

According to a Kigarama policeman, these drunks are out of control: “Sometimes they fight, sometimes they stab each other to death!”

The situation is the same in the hills outside the city. “My husband doesn't work anymore. He's become weak, he even drinks his plastic beer baggies in front of the children!” cries Immaculée.

The damages caused by these very strong and very questionable drinks are starting to worry the population. In December 2012, a group of locals asked journalists to investigate the beers’ harmful effects. Now they know.