Residents imbibe cheap brew, but how safe is it?

Everyday after work at a local farm, Maurice Izabayo heads to Ndago trading centre, Nyaruguru District to share a bottle of locally-made brew with his friends.  The 18-year-old says it has become routine for him and his friends, especially during harvest time to ‘celebrate’ the fruits of their work. “But of course it depends on whether we have money or not,” he says, insisting that he rarely thinks of the quality of what he and his friends drink.
A member of Nozisuku coop serve sorghum beer to clients.   Saturday Times/Jean Pierre Bucyensenge.
A member of Nozisuku coop serve sorghum beer to clients. Saturday Times/Jean Pierre Bucyensenge.

Everyday after work at a local farm, Maurice Izabayo heads to Ndago trading centre, Nyaruguru District to share a bottle of locally-made brew with his friends.

The 18-year-old says it has become routine for him and his friends, especially during harvest time to ‘celebrate’ the fruits of their work.

“But of course it depends on whether we have money or not,” he says, insisting that he rarely thinks of the quality of what he and his friends drink.

“I don’t waste a lot of time on that,” he says.

“After all I can do nothing about it. I cannot stop drinking yet with my financial capacity I can’t afford bottled beer or wine.”

Izabayo lives off farming in the rural Mubuga Cell, Kibeho Sector, and he claims his resources are “really limited” and with his earning, he can only afford locally made banana or sorghum beer.

Although only 18 years, Izabayo looks over a decade older that this age, and usually fishes from his pocket the national identity card for anyone to believe he is still a teenager.

As he casually sips his sorghum beer, the young man looks happy and says nothing will stop him from taking the brew.

“This is my preferred drink,” he says, smiling.

“I would love to drink imported or locally bottled beer like Primus (the most popular beer made by local brewer, Bralirwa), but I cannot afford it. It is way too expensive,” he says. “I know it is better in terms of quality and hygiene compared to our locally-made beer.”

A litre of sorghum brew (Urwagwa) cost only Rwf100, making it much cheaper than any other beer in the country.

Fears

A visit to several bars selling traditional banana or sorghum brew in Huye and Nyaruguru districts reveal an almost similar image: many of them operate in run-down shacks with difficulties to maintain proper hygienic standards.

The brew is kept in large barrels, sometimes of up to 250 litres, which are often covered by winnowers. Also, many of the bar attendants use small plastic cups to draw the beer from the big containers to serve their clients mainly in one-litre bottles.

Sometimes, their hands get soaked in the beer they are serving, especially when they are dealing with many clients.

A number of individuals who spoke to Saturday Times expressed reservations over how the bar attendants wash their utensils – with some claiming that when the number of clients increases, one vessel can be used several times without the tender bothering to wash it.

But almost all bar attendants interviewed by this paper denied this.

A man, in his mid-40s, whom we found drinking banana beer in one bar on the outskirts of Huye town said he fears for his health.

The man, who asked not to be named, seems not to trust the conditions under which the drink is brewed and stored. But he insists his fears are not driven by the fact that he thinks some ill-intentioned individuals might intoxicate the brew, but rather consuming beer that has gone bad due to poor hygiene.

His fears are well-founded.  On June 30, two people died while 69 others were hospitalised in Ruhango District of the Southern Province after taking suspected contaminated sorghum brew.

Five days later, two other individuals died and seven others were taken to hospital under the same circumstances in Rwamagana District, in the Eastern Province.

Seventy-year-old Domitilla Nikuze of Nyarutovu village, Nyaruguru District, shares the same fears.

“We just drink,” she says.

The woman says she has put faith in local leaders whom she thinks are doing their best to guarantee people’s safety.

“We believe authorities are doing their best to ensure that what is traded in bars meet the minimum standard and do not cause any harm to consumers,” she says.

There have also been reports that some locally made drinks are produced using crude materials –sometimes mixing drinks bricks-which poses health risks to consumers.  Security organs have tried vainly to stop the making and trade of a number of local beverages which have for long been banned because they allegedly pose serious health risks.

The most common illicit brews include the notorious Nyirantare, Igikwangari and Muriture, among others –names which allude to their negative effects.

Venuste Bucyana, 71, the representative of Nozisuku Cooperative, makers of local sorghum beer, Ikigage, in Ndago trading centre, Nyaruguru District, told this paper that hygiene is central to their activities.

“We always make sure that what we serve to our clients meets the standards and that it will cause no harm to their lives,” he said.

According to Bucyana, the cooperative sells almost 100 litres of Ikigage every day-a testimony of how the brew has many clients.

Health risks

Ikigage, one of Rwanda’s popular traditional alcoholic beverages, is mainly made out of sorghum and Umubirizi (vernonia amygdalina).

François Lyumugabe, a scientist who has extensively studied Ikigage and whose works on the local brew have been published in various scientific journals across the world, told Saturday Times that poor hygienic conditions involved mainly in the production of the beer pose serious health risks.

“Consumers might feel ill after consuming it, as it has happened several times,” Lyumugabe said, citing the recent case in Ruhango.

“Children and old individuals are likely to be the most affected”.

According to Lyumugabe, the local production process might sometimes lead to developing aflatoxins in the beer.

Aflatoxin is a cancer-causing poison produced by certain fungi in or on foods and feeds and is associated with various diseases, such as aflatoxicosis in livestock and humans.

In his PhD research thesis, presented to the Belgium-based University of Liège last April and which he discusses the production process of the local sorghum beverage and how its quality can be improved, Lyumugabe writes that the beer remains less attractive because of poor hygienic quality and limited shelf life, among others.

“[Traditional] Sorghum brew is consumed while it is still fermenting. The worst form is that that is not heated – or otherwise treated prior to the addition of yeast, and the drink, therefore, always carries a residual microflora (micro-organisms) originating mainly from its ingredients.

The resulting beer is thus microbiologically unstable i.e., infected at varying levels with yeasts and bacteria,” the scientist argues, in his thesis titled:  “Characterisation and improvement of the quality of Rwandan traditional beer (ikigage) made from sorghum”.

Cooperatives

Government is encouraging local brew makers to form cooperatives so they could improve on the quality and hygiene of their products. Within the cooperatives, it is believed that the business will be easy to regulate.

Ruhango District Mayor François Xavier Mbabazi told Saturday Times that leaders have been engaging local residents on the benefits of maintaining hygiene in all their activities.

“First, we make sure existing rules and regulations are known to the public,” Mbabazi said. “Then, we keep on sensitising beer makers that it is in their interest to stick to them.”

“We believe that when people join their efforts, the quality of what they do improves,” Mbabazi added, noting that all actors, including grassroots leaders, local opinion leaders and community health workers, are working hard to improve hygiene and sanitation in the local communities.

“Our efforts are not limited to those dealing in local beverages but also we tell the entire population that hygiene is needed in everything they do so as to remain safe,” Mbabazi noted, adding the campaign has also been taken to schools, bars, restaurants and hotels, among others.

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