Zimbabwe clamps down on ‘backyard brewers’ as fake booze booms

By Nyasha Chingono

HARARE (Reuters) – Inside a grimy, poorly lit room in Mbare, one of Zimbabwe’s most populous townships, a 45-year-old man sits on a makeshift stool as he pours a brownish liquid into small bottles.

An alcoholic stench fills the room.

The Mbare resident is one of Zimbabwe “backyard brewers” who are making fake whiskies, brandy, vodka and other spirits to make ends meet amid fading hopes for economic prosperity.

“My life changed when I got into this business,” said the brewer, a former heavy machinery mechanic who did not want to be identified by name. “I left the (mechanics) industry because it was not paying much anymore.”

Made from ethanol concentrate and diluted with large amounts of water and then mixed with a brown colouring mainly from baking products, the home-made brew has become popular among young people looking for cheap alcohol in bars in the townships.

A 250 ml bottle of the brew, which imitates brands like Two Keys, Jack Daniels, King Stallion Brandy, retails at $0.50.

“We always check to see which label has more demand at any given time and make that,” said the brewer who ventured into business in 2011 in what he said now was a crowded market.

“We make the same (alcohol) but put different labels,” he added, chuckling.

Authorities have warned the practice is putting lives as risk, because the home brewers have no mechanism to test the alcohol content accurately.

Police are now frequently conducting raids to clamp down on the brewing businesses.

“Wherever we find substances like illicit alcohol, we act,” police spokesperson Paul Nyathi told Reuters, adding those arrested are charged with possession of dangerous drugs.

Since January of this year, police have arrested 4,000 suspects countrywide, said Nyathi.

“The police raid us every day … business is not the same,” said the brewer. “It is now dangerous to display our products.”

Civil society groups say alcohol and drug abuse in Zimbabwe is on the rise amid economic hardships, with the fake alcohol contributing to the scourge.

But there is no official data as to the number of people suffering from substance addiction in the country. Zimbabwe does not have publicly run substance abuse rehabilitation centres.

“The evidence on the ground points to a lot of illicit alcohol use,” said Knowledge Mupembe, a program officer at Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network. “We advocate for the establishment of public and affordable rehabilitation centres.”

(Reporting by Nyasha Chingono; Editing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and Alison Williams)