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The unending battle against illicit brew

A box of illicit brew. Emmanuel Kwizera.

It’s only 9:30a.m in Kajevuba trading centre along Kigali-Gatuna border highway and a young man, probably in his mid-twenties, is slumped under-tree by the road in a state of stupor.

He reeks of an alcoholic substance that smells like urine. His clothes are dusty as if he fell not too long ago. His trousers do not cover him completely and the buttons of his shirt are undone.


His hair is short but unkempt, and the rubber sandals he’s wearing are not fastened properly.


Elsewhere; at around 5pm in Kacyiru sector, Cyibaza cell, Kabagali village, a man is struggling to make his way home, staggering over the treacherous trenches and the uneven surface.


He slips often but always manages to steady himself before he hits the ground.

He mumbles to himself, the syllables slurring into each other, making it difficult to understand what he’s saying. Now and then, he shouts and waves his hands wildly at things only he can see, causing children around to scatter in fright.

In contrast, adults, brush past him with irritation. They have seen his kind often enough. It no longer fazes them.

It is hard to believe that the police launched a spirited crackdown on illicit brews from the same areas like elsewhere in the country as part of the campaigns to purge the country of illegal alcohol, but the brewers carry-on.

Thousands of litres of the toxic stuff is often times destroyed and drugs set aflame, as happened recently in Ngoma, Karongi, and Gasabo.

In such situations, authorities pour the brew and destroy the brewing gear, but people simply buy new equipment and start all over again.

In 2017, joint operations by Rwanda National Police and Rwanda Bureau of Standards closed 45 illegal breweries in Eastern Province alone.

Records show that in 2018, there were 218 local distilleries countrywide which produced about 152 different brands of illicit alcohol.

About 150 were closed for flounting production standards requirements while 13 were fined.

Most brands, however, are foreign and are distilled from neighbouring countries and only smuggled into the country which further frustrates the fight.

Recently, the Inspector General of Police, Dan Munyuza, told members of the senatorial standing committee on foreign affairs, cooperation, and security that although police have enlisted the collaboration of local leaders and youths through community policing activities, there are still challenges on the increasing market demand for the drinks including those that are produced outside Rwandan borders.

“Some of the drinks outlawed in Rwanda are legitimate in some of our neighbours; this creates an enduring challenge caused by porous borders, which is also creating a spillover of such drinks into the country,” Munyuza said.

He added that some elected local leaders were said to be complaisant because they know where and who is behind the brews since the illegal breweries are close to communities.

Munyuza explained that most of the seized drinks were found to have been produced in very unhygienic conditions, poorly stored, packaged and transported.

On March 30, in Nyagatare District, contraband worth Rwf 32 million were destroyed and offenders fined.

An extensive list indicating the illegal brews was issued and law gazzeted but illicit alcohol is unending in our society.

Brewers are well aware of the negative perspective that surrounds their work, as well as the health risks faced by those who drink unlicensed alcohol. But they manage to run their distilleries by engaging in endless cat-and-mouse games with authorities.

“The signs in an alcohol-dependent person are excessive drinking, destructive habits such as skipping work and ignoring one’s health due to drinking” says David Kabagambe, a human resource specialist.

In Kajevuba and Kabagali are distillers of gins known locally as Soma Wongere. It is closely related to the more famous Muriture that is brewed in many rural areas in the country.

Some of the distilleries were found packing in used mineral water and Heineken bottles.

The illegitimate brewers, on the other hand, continue not to pay tax creating a cycle of negative effects in the entire market system.

Legal requirements

Phillip Nzaire, the Director of Quality Assurance at RSB, said that there are specific standard procedures that should be followed.

“Banana based alcoholic beverages have specifications; only food grade processing aids recognised as safe for human consumption shall be used during the manufacture. There are also content limits that shouldn’t be exceeded,” Nzaire said.

Other standards requirements include labelling (name of the products, physical and postal address of manufacturer); net contents in millilitres or litres; ethyl alcohol content; date of manufacture and expiry; storage instruction; statutory warnings; and list of ingredients in descending order.

The law also sets penalties against those found selling alcohol to underage consumers.

One wonders how someone can invest Rwf20 million in operating an illegal distillery, which is more than enough to start a lawful and standard licensed brewery.

But why the persistence in this illegal trade? .Why don’t people simply find an alternative business that they can conduct peacefully without any fear of getting into trouble with the law? Battle unending.


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