Illicit alcohol trade thrives in frontier towns

Musa Radoli @PeopleDailyKe

Smuggling sachets of illicit brews into Kenya from Uganda has erupted into a booming multi-million shillings business at the Kenya – Uganda border.

The trade thrives in Busia and Malaba border towns but is spread all the way to Lake Victoria where it is ferried into Kenya over the lake’s waters to saturate the hungry Kenyan market.

Hundreds of entry points, popularly known as panya routes along the porous border, are the superhighways for transit into Kenya for the illicit spirits. Smugglers evades official customs entry and exit points, both in Malaba and Busia, to avoid being impounded by police and customs officials.

Investigations established that the brew is smuggled into Kenya’s major towns in Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Eldoret, Nakuru, Kakamega, Bungoma and Webuye, among others where it is secretly sold through lucrative black markets.

For instance in Nairobi alone the business is thriving through black market outlets located in residential estates like the sprawling Kawangware, Dagoretti, Satellite, Eastlands, Kibera, Eastleigh, Pangani, Ngara, Huruma, Kariobangi, Kayole, among others.

The most preferred mode of transport is through Probox cars, and buses plying long distance routes right from Kampala in Uganda, Kigali in Rwanda through Kampala then through Busia and Malaba frontier towns to destinations in Nairobi and Mombasa. Smugglers use both the Malaba – Bungoma – Eldoret – Nakuru – Nairobi highway and the Busia – Kisumu – Kericho – Nakuru – Nairobi highway to transport goods.

According to insiders Proboxs are preferred because of their high speed, manoeuverability and ability to carry heavy cargo over long distances.

Locally, the brew is mainly transported by bicycles and motor cycles to destinations, not just within the border counties, but those neighbouring them as well.

In Busia and Malaba locals simply cross into Uganda for the drink at Sh20 and Sh25 per sachet at any hour because alcohol regulation in Uganda is not as strict  compared to Kenya. In the country’s interiors, including major towns, the drink is bought at between Sh40 and Sh60 per sachet depending on location.

Most of the illicit brands have alcohol content ranging from 40 and to 60 per cent.

Illicit spirits smuggled onto the Kenyan market are mainly produced by companies based in Kampala, Jinja, Tororo and Mbale.

Smugglers cross into Uganda, head to distribution outlets in border towns and stuff the sachets into gunny bags which are loaded into various means of transport ready for smuggling into Kenya.

Busia County Commissioner Michael Tialal told People Daily that the booming illicit trade is a major challenge to both security and customs officers based at the border who are relentlessly fighting to stamp  it out.

“We have impounded a lot of illicit brew, destroyed it and arraigned its smugglers in court,” said Tialal. He said regulation on alcoholic brews in Uganda is not as tight as Kenya, besides it being very cheap because of low taxation.

The County Commissioner says the fact that many of these brews, which are illegal in Kenya, are legalised in Uganda frustrate the fight against smuggling. The Kenya government banned second generation alcoholic drinks in 2015 after many people lost their lives and countless more suffered physical injuries.

In July 1, 2015 President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a crackdown on production and sale of illicit liquor. That was after a huge public outcry about the negative impact the brews were having on consumers in various parts of the country.

The order was immediately followed by raids on many “factories” distilling the brew with the second-generation wines and spirits outlets and bars closing down.

Consumers who talked to us said they were consuming the illicit brew smuggled into Kenya from Uganda because it was cheap, more potent and very easy to carry in their pockets.

“I simply walk to the local kiosk where the stuff is sold with my Sh150 or Sh200, buy three or four sachets, put them in my pockets to take at my own convenience,” said Charles Obuoke who takes the smuggled brew.

Obuoke’s sentiments were echoed by many others who also complained that tight restrictions in Kenya, including drinking hours, were the driving forces for the smuggling.

Busia Uganda Regional District Commissioner Kennedy Adhola says there was very little Ugandan authorities can do to help their Kenyan counterparts because the brewers were officially licensed and the brews legal in their country.

“All the companies mentioned are legally licensed. Where they sell is their problem so long as they are not breaking the law,” said Adhola.

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