Mama Jane Adhiambo prepares distilled traditional brewed alcoholic liquor, locally known as chang'aa, at an illegal micro-brewery in Kibera slum in Nairobi. At least 81 people across Kenya died last week from consuming a toxic batch of home-brewed liquor. Photo: Reuters

Nairobi - Kelvin Mau Kimani will bury four of his relatives in central Kenya this week at a funeral he says could well have been his own.

The 25-year-old casual labourer found work on May 5 instead of joining his father, uncle and two cousins to drink chang’aa, a moonshine distilled from grains like wheat and maize. They all developed symptoms of poisoning after consuming a contaminated batch of the beverage and died within days of each other, Kimani said.

“I had to work so I did not go drinking with them,” he said inside a roadside tea hut in Limuru, on the outskirts of the capital, Nairobi. “If I did, I would have been a victim too. I would have been dead.”

Kimani’s family members are among at least 81 people who died last week after consuming the poisonous brew in five of Kenya’s 47 counties, including Nairobi. K24, a Nairobi-based broadcaster, put the death toll at 94. More than 100 others were admitted to hospital with symptoms including blindness, stomach cramps and headaches.

It is one of the deadliest such incidents since 2000, when at least 113 people died from imbibing a toxic batch of chang’aa in Nairobi slums.

Fifty-two people were fired in the wake of the latest deaths, including William Okedi, the chief executive of the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada), the state-run agency established in 2012 to help raise awareness about harmful addictions.

“These deaths should not have happened,” Nacada chairman John Mututho said.

Mututho sponsored alcohol-control legislation in 2010 that aims to regulate the brewing of chang’aa. The law, which is still being phased in four years later, limits the hours that alcohol can be sold in shops, bars and restaurants and restricts marketing of the drinks.

It also provides manufacturing and packing standards for home brews, which must be sold at licensed outlets and distributed in glass bottles.

Chang’aa is offered at informal taverns in slums and alleys in Kenyan towns and villages as a cheaper option to retail alcohol brands.

Inadequate oversight by alcohol regulatory bodies had enabled toxic brews to enter the market, said Alex Awiti, the director of Aga Khan University’s East African Institute.

About 2.2 million Kenyans are alcoholics out of 18 million people in the east African nation who are aged 20 years or older. Factors including high levels of unemployment, poverty and family histories of alcohol abuse underpin the problem, according to Nacada.

Drinkers would often resort to cheaper home-brewed alcohol in the absence of an “affordable alternative”, Joe Muganda, the managing director of Kenya Breweries, said last week. The unit of East African Breweries has urged the government to cut excise duties on beer and spirits so that regulated sellers in the market could pass the savings on to their customers.

Kimani said his community had learned its lesson. “We’ve all been drinking it in the past, but this time the supplier didn’t do the right mix,” he said. “People will stop now. It’s a big disaster.” – Bloomberg