While alcohol isn’t new to West Africa, its traditional form, omele, a sugar cane-based, locally-produced spirit has been virtually eliminated by competition from Indian manufacturers, who use industrial technologies and mass production to make highly potent alcohol affordable to nearly all West Africans. With distribution networks spanning the entire Mano River Market of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, and Ivory Coast, their products find their way to even the deepest jungle villages, typically sold at small stands known as hokas, characteristically consisting of an umbrella and collapsible box.
Their products, packaged in small plastic bottles and pouches and referred to generically as “packet alcohol,” are more abundant than purified water in some regions of West Africa, and a single packet costs around 500 Leoneans, or 11 cents. A variety of spirits, many flavored with fruits and herbs, are available, all with their own creative slogans and depictions. The potency of the drink varies by product, and in fact the standardization of alcoholic drinks and the regulation of their deceitful marketing campaigns were only brought about in 2013 by the ubiquity of these beverages, and concern on the part of Robert Kondema Kargbo of the Health Network, a local organization promoting health issues and human rights.
“The unskilled and unemployed are not informed on the associated risks of alcohol,” said Kargbo. Lacking the regulatory codes of developed markets, alcohol in Sierra Leone is not forbidden to minors, and companies can market its consumption as beneficial to health. Distracted by the inclusion of traditional medicine in the ingredients of high-percentage alcoholic drinks, many consumers remain unaware of the risks.
KADCO, one of the largest Indian-owned manufacturers, markets some of its products this way. “We take the traditional herbs used to give the body power and strength and we mix that with the alcohol. It sells very fast,” explains KADKO Production Manager V.P.S. Nair. The label for Bitter Kola, KADKO’s most popular beverage reads, “This herbal base bitter restores appetite, increase potency in men, cures piles and joint pains.”
While these companies have greatly contributed to consumption through dubious marketing campaigns and dangerously high alcohol content, their investments have also helped to advance development in the struggling country. Through its policy of community investment, KADCO has increased the supply of electricity to much of western Freetown and has established a recycling program that pays cash for returned bottles—no small feat in a country lacking waste management. KADCO and other companies like G. Shankadas and Sons, Ltd., also provide hundreds of factory jobs—however low-paying—to Sierra Leoneans.
Profits exceed millions of dollars for the international manufacturers, but local wholesalers can also generate thousands each month by selling to the countless hokas. A young woman named Fatima is one such entrepreneur. Fatima opened her wholesale alcohol business with a few thousand dollars in savings. Inventory is purchased with the micro-credit funds available to her mother, and she visits the shop a few times a week “so everyone can see who the owner is.” Fatima does not drink alcohol.
Fatima’s uncle, Alpha, helps run the wholesale store, and owns his own hoka in the parking lot of the most popular beach bar on Lumley Beach. Unlike his niece, Alpha makes a mere 3.3 cents, or 150 Leones, on each packet sold. He struggles to provide for his family, including his infant daughter Mariam, but manages as a result of his hoka.
Although packet alcohol provides some Sierra Leoneans with a measure of economic security and other benefits, it is also hurting some of the country’s most vulnerable citizens.
In Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, packet alcohol is both a problem and a solution for young people, for whom unemployment is both rampant — at times running as high as 70 percent — and chronic. For many, it’s a vicious cycle: unemployment leads to drinking, which contributes to further unemployment.
Mohamed is one such example. From the Freetown neighborhood of Aberdeen, he spends his days strolling the beaches, smoking a joint, and nursing a half-pint plastic bottle of Bitter Kola. While his consumption depends on how much he can hustle or borrow, Mohamed, with not much else to do, drinks packet alcohol at all hours of the day.
The pain of hunger also fuels drinking. 29-year-old Foday is one of a group of jobless men who regularly meet at the same hoka at Freetown’s Lumley Beach to pass the time drinking and socializing. “There are no jobs and we can’t afford to do anything else. Money is not always there for food, so we can share this drink to feel good,” he said.
Although Robert Kargbo has made significant inroads in legislating for alcohol safety and youth education policies, his work is far from over. He now is campaigning to raise 74 million leones to fund his programs, but is strained by the very financial circumstances that keep so many young people like Foday unemployed and attached to packet alcohol, for lack of better options.
Photos by Michael Drasher