Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Mama Pima is not a kingpin. Yet.

The Eighteenth Amendment to the United States' Constitution imposed a ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages that remained in place from 1920 to 1933, when it was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment. In that period, the rise of the Mafia was assured. Kenya does not have a constitutional ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages, but in the Alcoholic Drinks Control Act, 2010, it might as well have.

In the past year a war has been raging against the "illicit brews trade" in which millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, of shillings in private property has been destroyed. The President is persuaded that the sellers, producers and transporters of "illicit brews" have contributed significantly to social ills, including youth joblessness, crime, a falling birth rate in some parts of Kenya, official corruption and environmental degradation. 
 
This war has targeted both small scale sellers, producers and transporters as well as established medium-scale industrial units an has been prosecuted with avidity by minor political functionaries, elected representatives and elements of the re-branded provincial administration. As happens when the express provisions of law and the wishes of the powers-that-be conflict, the matter has been highly politicised (as it should be) and has invited constitutional litigation (as should have been expected). So far as I can tell, the proposed solutions and the expected solutions have not addressed a fundamental question: what can we do to ensure that only alcoholic beverages fit for human consumption are sold, produced or transported in Kenya?

The web of statutes and constitutional principles that apply in this case are sufficient to properly regulate the alcoholic beverages industry, whether the players are transnational conglomerates such as Diageo or the Mama Pimas operating out of shanties in Korogocho. Diageo, and its local competitors Keroche and KWAL, have their market locked up tight, but their prices and products will never attract the hardcore imbibers of the rotgut produced and sold by many Mama Pimas. It is Mama Pima that has suffered the wrath of the President and his minions, and yet Mama Pima has the potential to revolutionise alcohol consumption while contributing to the serikali revenue bottom line.

Brewing or distillation of alcoholic beverages have not changed in two hundred years; the basic technology remains the same as do the input and process. What has evolved is the statutory environment. For a win/win scenario, the President shouldn't treat Mama Pima as a criminal, but as an entrepreneur and ask himself what this entrepreneur needs: access to capital, technology, technical skills, regulatory support and the like. We are yet to get an assessment of the impact of the Uwezo, Women Enterprise and Youth Enterprise funds, but I bet if part of those billions went to Mama Pima, the ill-effects of "illicit brews" would be substantially mitigated and the national revenue would experience a minor increase.

Whether the President wants to accept it or not, "illicit brews" will always be produced because there will always be a segment of the population that either will never be able to afford more mainstream supplies, will always enjoy the risk inherent in "illicit brews" or will always prefer the immediate potency of "illicit brews." If the President's goal is the safety of these Kenyans, it is in his interest to ensure that at the very least the producers of these "brews" do so in sanitary surroundings using standardised equipment and inputs fit for human consumption. Wars on crime never end. They instead evolve with the evolution of the criminals who fight them. Out of the US's Prohibition Era rose organised crime that branched out to narcotics and illegal weapons. What will Kenya's war on illicit brews evolve into?

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