Underage Drinking a Recurring Problem in Ethiopia

The Ethiopian beer market is experiencing its biggest growth and transformation to date. Among its 90 million-plus population, it is estimated that an average of eight litres of beer is consumed each year. Just two decades ago, it was only two litres a person. Back then, St. George beer was the only visible beer in the country. The country has since become a major beer drinking nation, with close to one billion litres of beer consumed annually.

This is a huge amount and it is no wonder there is vast interest from international brand name companies to venture into the Ethiopian market. With the industry out of the government monopoly loop, it is experiencing growth unimagined decades ago. Famous international brand names are now owners of Ethiopian brands.

This includes BGI Ethiopia, with St. George beer, as one of the largest brewers in the country. It also owns Amber and Castel, while Diageo has the Meta brand – bought for 225 million dollars almost five years ago. It has since introduced non-alcoholic beer, Malta Guinness, to the market. Heineken owns Bedele and Harar, which it bought for 163 million dollars in 2011 and then introduced the Walia beer brand two years ago. It has also introduced a made-in-Ethiopia version of the famous Heineken beer, targeting the emerging Ethiopian middle class. It is now the largest producer of beer in the country, at four million litres a year.

Vasari, a United Kingdom asset management company, is a majority owner of Dashen and produces more than two million hectolitres of beer a year. Habesha is partially owned by Bavaria and is one of the famous beers in the country. More beers are also about to be introduced. With the emergence of a population with spending power, cheap labour, attractive government initiatives and one of the fastest growing populations in the continent, Ethiopia has emerged as an attractive destination for investors. Like the textile producing country it became as a result of the exodus of business from Asia (as a result of the Bangladeshi textile crises of a decade ago) the country is fast becoming a beer producing country with the capability of exporting its brands around the world.

With all the successes of bringing reputable beer companies to the country, creating jobs and expanding the reach of the government with once untapped tax resources, what should worry all is the underage drinking that is becoming widespread.

Is the Ethiopian society investing enough resources to help curb the unhealthy lifestyle that is being created as a direct result of alcohol consumption? While it is understandable that the government is investing much of its tax income on necessary infrastructure, it is only fitting that that it invests some of that money on this recurring issue.

This is not a proposal to curb the success of the beer industry with more tax or surcharges added to consumers, but to have the government invest a portion of the taxes it already collects into education, advocacy and alcoholism recovery. This is the way it is done in many countries. Alcohol affects young people, as they are easily influenced by popular culture, advertisements and peer pressure. Despite a warning not to make beers available to anyone underage, there is no mechanism to act on the warning in Ethiopia.

According to a Canadian study, “young people, whose brains are still developing, may be at greater risk than mature adults of lasting brain damage from heavy alcohol consumption and alcohol-related trauma is a significant and preventable cause of death”.

This same study exposes us to good ideas that could work for the adolescent population of Ethiopia. It advocates for “public health programmes and services to promote awareness of the many risks of alcohol; low risk drinking guidelines to help decrease its health risks; promoting responsible driving, including drink driving; advising pregnant women of the particular risk and harmful effects; promoting the adoption of municipal alcohol policies to limit its abuse; providing restaurant and bar servers with advice on intervention techniques and valuable training; promoting safe bar policies and responsible hosting instead of continuing to serve a drunk person”.

In the absence of coherent government guidelines and policies, private beer companies have taken the initiative in addressing the concerns of underage drinking in the country and that is not enough.

Earlier this year, for instance, the Meta Abo Brewery launched a 100-thousand-dollar campaign to educate young people and retailers, and work with stakeholders to ensure regulations are followed in the industry. While I salute the efforts of Meta, I still think there should be a bigger investment by all the players in the industry led by the government. This particular effort, according to the deputy head of the Addis Ababa Bureau of Education, is “an important first step towards preventing the misuse of alcohol among youth.”

The country should not be in a first step stage at the moment, when the crises already runs deep.

The fact is that Ethiopia has used a number of Canadian models to emulate as it transitions from its communist era past to a modern and civilized country. Its taxing system, made-in-Ottawa smoking bylaws, constitution and human rights codes, which aim to protect minority rights, often spring to mind. In Canada, the issue of underage drinking is dealt with by the government – not through a small contribution from the beer industry. The crisis touches on health costs, the well-being of citizens and the livelihoods of all. It is not left to an afterthought of a private entrepreneur, like in Ethiopia, to do the heavy lifting.

A good country is not one that is in the business of collecting taxes only, but one that builds its economy and takes care of its vulnerable with the income it earns. Again, it should be the government who forces society to have a strategy not to harm a small segment of society being affected by products that are legal. Like Alfred Nobel of the Nobel Prizes, who benefited from arms dealings and decided to invest the income to the harm he caused, the country should create the environment to do the same with the sale of alcohol.

The fact is, Ethiopia currently benefits from excise tax that is imposed on such a luxury goods. The whole premise is that the introduction of these taxes will help curb things that may be hazardous to health and cause social problems, and provide safety nets to those who are likely to be harmed by it. They should use that income to highlight its risks and promote a healthy lifestyle among the youth and restrict advertisements where they are deemed inappropriate to a particular segment of society. The country should construct a road map for all active players to help create a society free of underage drinking.

By Samuel Getachew
Samuel Getachew, an Ethiopian-Canadian, recently moved back to Ethiopia and is now a staff writer with Fortune.

Published on Nov 29,2016 [ Vol 17 ,No 865]



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