Alcohol in East Africa, 1850-1999


Making It

Selling it


Project outputs

Drinking it

Very largely, people in East Africa drink kinds of alcoholic beverage which are produced locally and on a small scale: not, perhaps, 'traditional' liquor (since many are made in innovative ways, with new ingredients), but certainly 'informal sector' liquor. They do drink bottled beer, wines and spirits as well, but those account for less than 20% of total alcohol consumption.

There are many different names for the drinks which people make for their own consumption, and they vary greatly in alcoholic strength. They are very much cheaper than formal sector drinks.

Overall, men drink much more than women; and they spend very much more on drink than women do.

Drinker near Hoima, Uganda

Drinking in the past

Controlling drinking



Taxing drink

Bottled beer

How strong is it?

What are these drinks called?

How much do they cost?

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How strong is it?

Alcoholic content of various beverages, recorded as % ethanol by volume

  Millet beer Maize beer Banana wine Sugar-cane Palm wine Bamboo wine Mbege Sugar ferment Distillate
Minimum 2.3 2.7 2.0 4.6 4.5 5.1 3.3 4.3 21.0
Maximum 8.5 8.06 11.0 5.2 7.8 5.5   8.3


It should be noted that variations in temperature and microbial activity, availability of sugar and other factors will affect the alcohol content of any particular ferment; and also that the alcoholic strength of any ferment will increase in the first 48-72 hours after production. These figures therefore show only the maximal and minimal values recorded in various tests. They are derived from Govt. Chemist to DC Njombe, 23 Apr. 1946, TNA 157 A2/8; tests performed by Tanzania Breweries Ltd on samples provided in 1997;Mosha, et al., 'African Traditional Brews'; Mwesigye and Okurut, 'A Survey of the Production and Consumption'.

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What are these drinks called?

There are many vernacular language and slang names for kinds of locally-produced alcohol. Some are used for different drinks in different places, and seem to have a general meaning of 'fermented beverage'(like the widely-spread word marwa); some words are associated with particular techniques of production rather than ingredients: muratina describes the use of a dried fruit as a yeast inoculum. Some words change their meanings: kangara was often used as a term for a grain beer with sugar added to give it extra potency, but was taken up to describe any grain beer produced in relatively novel ways and perceived as strong, such as beers in which the starch adjunct has been raosted. The following are some of the most common terms:

ajon millet beer masohi millet beer
boha sugar-cane ferment mbege banana and millet ferment
bura millet beer mnazi coconut palm wine
busaa maize beer moshi distillate
chang'aa distillate muratina honey or sugar-cane ferment
chofi sugar-cane ferment njohi sugar-cane ferment
denge sugar-cane ferment olamira processed-sugar and yeast ferment
ebikweete maize beer omuramba sorghum beer
enguli distillate omwenge 'alcohol', somtimes 'banana wine'
gangali honey wine os-sukuro honey or sugar-cane ferment
gongo distillate pombe 'alcohol'; sometimes 'grain beer'
haragi distillate rorunkana processed-sugar and tea ferment
ikarakatt distillate rubisi banana wine
kasese distillate scud processed-sugar ferment
kipumu millet beer tekawima maize beer
kihambule maize beer tembo coconut palm wine
komoni maize beer tonto banana wine
kongo millet beer ubwalwa grain beer
konyagi distillate (now a brand name) ujimbi maize beer
kyindi maize beer uki honey wine
lira-lira distillate ulanzi bamboo wine
mnanasi pineapple wine wanzuki honey or sugar ferment
maarwa 'alcohol', sometimes 'banana wine'   waragi distillate (now a brand name)










How much do they cost?

The price of informal-sector beverages fluctuates with the availability of raw materials and the level of demand. There are also variations by country; they are consistently more expensive in Kenya, presumably because of the extra risks and costs involved in production there. In all three East African countries they are, however, consistently very much cheaper than bottled beer, in volume terms and in terms of the alcohol they contain.

Bottled beer retails for between US$1.50 and US$2 a litre, across the region. At an average strength of 5% v/v, this means that a litre of absolute alcohol purchased in the form of bottled beer costs at least US$30. In Kenya, fermented liquors mostly retail for around US 30 cts a litre. Assuming an average strength of around 4% v/v, this means that a litre of absolute alcohol purchased as fermented informal-sector beverage costs US$7.5. Illicit distillates in Kenya cost around $5 a litre; assuming a strength of 30% v/v this would mean a litre of absolute alcohol bought in this way would cost around US$17.

The price difference is even more striking in Uganda and Tanzania; in Uganda, illicit distillates are very cheap indeed, costing around US$2 a litre at retail prices, so that a litre of absolute alcohol would cost only US$6 if bought as illicit distillates. Fermented informal sector liquors in Uganda retail for about US 25 cts a litre, so that a litre of absolute alcohol bought as ferments similarly costs around US$6. In Tanzania, fermented liquors cost only around US 20 cts a litre, so that a litre of absolute alcohol bought as fermented liquor costs only around US$5.

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