Zambia: It's Illegal. It's Unsafe. It's All the Rage in Zambia's Backyard Bars.

Mary Tembo adds water to her homemade still while making kachasu, a distilled spirit made primarily from maize and sugar.

Lusaka, Zambia — A homemade distilled spirit is the drink of choice for cash-strapped businesses and their drinking clients -- despite the many warnings.

As dawn breaks over Rufunsa, a village east of Lusaka, Zambia's capital, Mary Tembo is a whirlwind of activity. She moves through a crowd gathered inside a shelter made from sacks and rusted metal in her yard. It's only 6 a.m., but the air is already filled with the sound of gruff voices as Tembo serves her clients a bottle of an illegal homemade distilled spirit known as kachasu.

The patrons, sitting on stools carved from tree trunks without a table in sight, share the bottle. They take turns pouring the clear liquid into a tiny lid before tossing it back, grimacing with each gulp. Four more men arrive and call for a bottle of their own. Tembo welcomes them with a broad smile. She mentally notes their order before they, too, dive into the bustling crowd.

Just a few steps away in a separate hut, Tembo's next batch of kachasu brews in a sealed steel drum. Smoke from the firewood curls up into the sky, escaping through the hut's air vents. The heated mash inside the drum creates a steam that gets funneled into a carefully arranged pipe. Cooled by water, the trapped steam distills into a liquid, then drips slowly from the pipe's mouth into a waiting container. The final product: kachasu.

Tembo once owned a bar named Ziba Zako. But unpredictable fuel prices increased transportation costs and eroded her profits, making it impossible for her to buy and transport beer to her store. Her business became unsustainable. So in June of last year, she closed the doors to the establishment that she had owned and operated for eight years. Tembo turned to brewing and selling kachasu, a business she operates from her yard. Unlike her previous bar, this hut has no name.

"The bar was my means of survival. When it became clear that fluctuating prices were hindering sales, survival became a priority," Tembo says. "Kachasu seemed the only option."

In December 2021, the Zambian government eliminated fuel subsidies that kept prices low for consumers with the goal of saving money to pay off the country's debt. The following month it adopted a monthly review of fuel prices that relied on factors like global oil prices and currency exchange rates. These changes led to increased fuel prices that fluctuate each month and triggered a spike in transportation costs that hit businesses hard, particularly bars in rural areas like Tembo's that depend on fuel to transport the beer they sell.

Tembo says she sourced her beer from the neighboring town of Chongwe, transporting it by bus. By June of the following year, when she decided to shut down her bar, bus fares had increased from 70 Zambian kwacha to 120 kwacha (about 3 to 5 United States dollars) and the price per crate of beer rose from 200 to 255 kwacha (8 to 10 dollars) for 24 bottles. Transporters also doubled their handling fee from 10 kwacha (0.40 dollar) per crate to 20 kwacha (0.80 dollar).

As a result, Tembo had to increase her beer prices from 10 kwacha per bottle to 15 kwacha (0.60 dollar), a 50% hike.

"When transport costs go high, everything else goes high," Tembo says.

Unable to continue selling beer because of the high prices, former bar owners like Tembo have switched to brewing kachasu. But kachasu, which is made from fermented maize husk, sugar and yeast, is illegal to make in Zambia. Health experts caution against drinking the unregulated brew because it often contains undisclosed ingredients and additives and has an unreliable alcohol content. It can cause liver damage and exacerbate mental health issues, they say, and strain the health care system.

The Kwa ABanda Bar, located in Chinyunyu, just 10 kilometers (around 6 miles) from Tembo's bar, was once filled with laughter and lively debates -- but rising beer prices drove customers away. Now only empty stools stare back at its owner. Edward Banda, who ran his bar for five years, closed it permanently in March last year. He quickly felt the financial strain. Despite growing much of his food in his own field, he was unable to afford other necessities, such as sugar and soap, or to buy books, uniforms and other school supplies for his four children. It was overwhelming, Banda says.

After three months of stress from having no income, he began brewing kachasu. Others in his community who had made the switch and were successfully generating income inspired him.

"Clients eventually stopped buying, leaving me with no choice but to join the bandwagon of brewers to survive," Banda says.

According to the Liquor Licensing Act, it is illegal to brew and sell beverages that contain more than 3% alcohol or with an unknown alcohol content.

Both Tembo and Banda say they know it is illegal to brew kachasu. But they haven't been visited by law enforcement yet, they say. They feel as though they have no other alternatives.

There is no official data available on illegal spirit distillation in Zambia. But Christopher Mtonga, Lusaka's public health director, confirms there has been a rise in kachasu production. His department regularly raids households in Lusaka for brewing it, he says. He does not know whether the recent hike in fuel prices has directly influenced this increase. It is difficult for his department to regulate remote areas like Tembo's village because of transportation challenges, Mtonga says, which could contribute to an increase in illegal brewing in those areas.

Joseph Kasolo, a regular client of Tembo's who lives in her neighborhood, says he prefers kachasu because it is more affordable and more intoxicating than legally produced beer. He works odd jobs like land cultivation that don't pay much, he says. He likes that a 340-milliliter bottle of the local brew cost just 7.50 kwacha (0.30 dollar), half the price of an equivalent amount of a commercially produced beer.

Doctors have warned him that drinking kachasu puts him at risk for liver disease, stomach ulcers and blood clots, he says. But he doesn't plan to stop.

"What options do we have? We need to drink, and what is available and affordable is kachasu," Kasolo says.

Dr. Aaron Mujajati, a local physician, says that while heavy alcohol drinking in general poses health risks, consuming kachasu is more dangerous because it often contains unknown ingredients and additives. Ingesting these toxins can lead to severe liver issues quickly, he says.

Over 21% of Zambians consume alcohol, according to a 2017 report on non-communicable diseases by the Ministry of Health. More than 10% engage in heavy drinking, which it defined as six drinks or more in one outing, and 26% consume unregulated alcohol, such as home brewed kachasu. Men are more likely to drink heavily, with nearly 17% identified as heavy drinkers compared to just over 5% of women who drink.

Nearly a third of all deaths in Zambia are caused by non-communicable diseases, according to the World Health Organization, and diseases that stem from alcohol use play a big part. In 2016, 57% of liver cirrhosis cases in men were caused by alcohol.

Mujajati says that these numbers could rise if people continue consuming homemade alcohols like kachasu.

Like other substances, kachasu can be abused, psychiatrist Naeem Dalah says. He says some additives are drugs that can be lethal or exacerbate mental health issues like anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

"Kachasu is not made well, and it can damage the body," Dalah says. "Because sometimes people add drugs to it."

Health Minister Sylvia Masebo says the already underfunded and inadequately staffed health care system will be more strained if behaviors don't change.

"You shouldn't consume poison just because you can't afford food. People must prioritize the well-being of this country by safeguarding their lives," Masebo says.

Tembo says she knows the dangers of taking kachasu, especially on an empty stomach. She encourages her clients to eat beforehand and occasionally provides free food like nshima, a dish made of maize pulp, to try to counter the effects.

Despite the health and legal risks, she says she feels she has no choice but to make the homemade spirit. There's a long history of the brew in her area and the drink only became more popular when the bars started to close.

"Many of our clients opted for the cheaper brew, which is kachasu," she says. "I, too, had to make a shift in my business."

Prudence Phiri is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Lusaka, Zambia.


Prudence Phiri, GPJ, translated some interviews from Nyanja.

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