Kaliber 3 May 2009: "They are making us starve" - About the new market for alcohol companies

In Malawi every second child is undernourished. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. And it is there, among the youths of the developing countries,  that the alcohol industry is searching for its future market. That is where the customers are. That is where there’s an opportunity to market without restrictions. That is where it is possible to lobby for a liberal alcohol policy. “Kaliber” examines the emerging market of the alcohol industry – in the third world.

Welcome to Malawi in southern Africa – one of the poorest countries in the world. More than half of the population lives on less than 2 dollars a day. Malawi also has one of the highest percentages of HIV positives in the world.

All the same this is where some of the world’s richest alcohol companies are established – “Kaliber” is here to find out what effect alcohol and the alcohol companies have on such a vulnerable society.

Like a scrapyard

Our taxi is approaching what is stated to be the country’s only organization dedicated to fighting alcohol problems – Drugfight Malawi.

We expect to find a modern office in glass and steel design, situated in the capital Lilongwe. That’s why we are increasingly confused about the red muddy road that the taxi leads us down. It is full of enormous pits that are taxing the shock absorbers of the old car.

We feel even more hesitant when we get there. The rusty steel gates are reminiscent of the entrance of a scrapyard. And inside the gates there’s a big sand ground, old timber, a fire burning and a car wreck.

There’s a banner made of cloth hanging above one of the doors, it says Drugfight Malawi – for a sustainable development of our country.

This is where we meet the founder and head of the organization, Nelson Zakeyu, who greets us wearing a neat double-breasted green suit and a purple tie. His polished appearance is in stark contrast to the shabby office with a scent of earth cellar, the empty concrete walls and knotty plush sofas.

It is from this office that Nelson Zakeyu fights the ravaging activities of the multinational alcohol companies in his country, which has become the main object in life.

- These people are making us starve. They are making us poorer and poorer, he says.

He also says that alcohol has an important impact on the three main problem areas in Malawian society: poverty, the HIV epedemic and the maltreatment of women.

”My husband is a drunkard”

Wezi Manza is tall and thin, almost skinny. She has big, sad eyes and her brown corkscrew curls almost reach her shoulders. We meet her in one of the victim centers that have been opened in police stations around Malawi. One of the reasons is the increase in problems connected to alcohol-related violence against women.

It’s a sterile environment, bare concrete walls and floor. And when the police officer on duty bursts out laughing there’s a loud echo between the walls. He pulls out a chair for Wezi who sits down, takes a deep breath and starts telling her story.

- We’ve been married for eight years. And since we’ve been married...he’s been hitting me. In the morning when he ask for something to eat in the house he also hit me and fight me, because he have used all the money for drinking.

He finds an excuse to get angry, tears her out of bed and starts pounding his hard fists in her face, which shows evident traces from years of abuse.

Full up and drunk

Wezi Manza’s husband works for the beer maker Chibuko that is owned by the South African alcohol company SAB Miller. The beer label Chibuko is sold in tetrapak and consists of a viscous mixture of strong beer and gruel. One litre costs 50 cents and it’s become a best-seller in countries like Malawi where many addicts want to feel like they are full and drunk at the same time.

It was often the food issue that sparked arguments between Wezi and her husband when he ended up hitting her.

- There was not even breakfast for the kids, no lunch for the kids, no dinner for the kids.

- The kids did not ask for us to be their parents, it’s us who made them to be our kids. I was sad, I was very sad.

Wezi says her children have seen her so badly injured that she even feared for her own life.

After talking to Wezi Manza we meet seven more women who tell similar stories about violence and poverty, stories in which women and children always are the ones who have to pay the price for the men’s alcohol addiction.

Free round in the brewery

It’s 11 am and we are in one of the poorest parts of Lilongwe. The sun is broiling and the red earth between the low, narrow sheds is dry and dusty.

About 40 men are sitting underneath a palm roof on simple wooden benches. They are drinking. All the people we meet  smell of beer and they have an unsteady look in their eyes. This is the neighborhood’s own, primitive combined bar and brewery. There’s an open fire and above it there’s a dirty oil drum containing a boiling liquid that is about to turn into beer. On the ground there are big grains of maize spread out to dry. It’s the basic ingredient in the beer and the liquor that is produced here.

- It is a very strong beer, says one of the men.

Frances is dressed in jeans shorts, a short-sleeved shirt and sandals. He proudly shows us a glass bottle filled with home-brewed liquor, and says that the price is 90 kwacha, about 60 cents. The beer costs 25 cents per liter and people drink it out of big, reused cans.

Since we are visiting, all the men are offered a free round. Everyone is eager to get a share. Frances shows us a small black plastic container, about the size of a big shot glass and says:

- If you only drink one pot, two pots. So if you are drinking you feel something in his body.

It’s before lunch. Yet a lot of the men that we meet are already visibly drunk. An older man with grey hair, all dressed in white, is squatting and holding a liquor bottle firmly with both hands. We try to get in contact with him but he just stares straight ahead. We have a little bit more more luck when it comes to Richard. He has already been drinking for quite a few hours and he finds it hard to express himself.

- No my friend, this is affecting our problems. What problems? - ... Affecting.

Tour of the brewery

A couple of days later we are on a tour of a completely different kind of brewery. It belongs to one of the world’s biggest and richest alcohol companies, the giant beer producer Danish Carlsberg. Last year Carlsberg had a turn over of 86 billion SEK, which is twice as much as Malawi’s budget! It is also the biggest brewery in Sweden with labels such as Pripps and Flacon.

The Carlsberg brewery looks like an industrial building in just about any country, even if the plant is starting to look a bit old. The main building is shaped like a white plaster square box, with the Carlsberg logotype printed on the wall.

Rexford is tall and elegant and seems to be a pretty modest man. He’s wearing a proper white shirt with a starched collar, creased trousers and polished shoes. He is responsible for the tours of the company’s brewery here in Malawi.

Carlsberg has been in Malawi since independence about 40 years ago. The brewery started off as an aid project, but today it carries itself and the sales are increasing steadily. Carlsberg has 97% of the bottled beer market in Malawi.

”There’s no addiction in Malawi”

Carlsberg’s marketing director in Malawi is Danish and his name is Mads Burmester. He receives us in his airy office.

Alcohol policy in Malawi is very liberal, many people would probably claim that it doesn’t even exist. The price of beer and liquor is low and alcohol is available almost everywhere at any time of the day.

Nobody who goes for a walk in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, can avoid being struck by the deep poverty. Neither ought it be possible to avoid noticing the alcohol addiction that follows in its trail.

Still the marketing director of Carlsberg Mads Burmester claims that there are no addiction problems in Malawi.

- I don’t want to say that there’s an addiction, I travel around a lot with customers.

You don’t think that there seems to be an addiction problem when it comes to alcohol in Malawi?

- It’s hard to tell what a problem is … no, I don’t think so.

”Has he been to Malawi?”

Dag Endahl works for the Norwegian aid organization FORUT, it is financed by the Norwegian international development cooperation agency and it springs out of the temperance movement. The organization is specialized in alcohol problems in developing countries. He has visited Malawi several times in the past couple of years. And when he finds out that Mads Burmester has denied that there are addiction problems in the country, he responds:

- Have they been to Malawi? That’s what I would ask them. It’s not difficult to see it.

- It’s something that everyone knows about but nobody talks about. Everyone has a family member who drinks too much alcohol, who might have caught HIV when drunk, who hits his wife or children, who uses up his money in the bars or restaurants instead of spending it on the children’s education. Carlsberg ought to take a walk outside the office and talk to people.

Tragic family experience fuels Nelson

We’re back outside Drugfight Malawi’s simple office in the dusty courtyard. Nelson Zakeyu starts telling us about why he founded the organization. It turns out that he is not just fuelled by his concern for the future of the country. Alcohol has played a tragic part in his own family. When he tells us about his big brother his expression turns dark.

- My brother was a teacher, and whenever he got his monthly salary he used it to spend all of the amount to buy alcohol.

Nelson’s big brother Bellium worked as a teacher in an intermediate-level school. He lived with his wife and five children in a small village some twenty or thirty kilometers outside the capital. For Bellium’s family starvation always threatened around the corner, just like it does for a majority of families in Malawi. That’s why Bellium’s increased drinking was a devastating blow. He earned less and less money and the money that was left was used for buying beer.

- That was creating another big problem. As a result of alcohol the family was starving.

But his brother continued drinking. And when he drank he went to prostitutes. He later contracted HIV during one of those visits.

- When he was drunk he was mentally disturbed and would do anything. So he was involved in sexual intercourse without using condoms and he was HIV positive.

Bellium Zakeyu died in 2001. The following year his younger brother Nelson founded Drugfight Malawi.

Bellium Zakeyu’s story is far from unique. In the last few years, the relationship between alcohol addiction and the ongoing HIV epidemic has received more and more attention. So explains Karusa Kiragu, a researcher at the UN AIDS in Geneva who has studied the connection between HIV and alcohol.

- It was so obvious that there should be a link. And I wasn’t hearing any discussion about alcohol when we talked about behavioral change. We talked about avoid risky sex, being faithful, using condom, but there was no discussion about alcohol itself.

Karusa Kiragu says that the advice that is given on how to avoid contracting the disease is focused on the use of condoms, being faithful or abstaining from sex. Alcohol is never mentioned. Alcohol is perceived as such a natural part of our society that people do not even think about it.

- It’s interesting because I think there’s also an element of common sense about it, but I think that a lot of the time alcohol is so common that people don’t often think about in relation to HIV.

Scientific studies also show that alcohol seems to have an effect on the actual virus, she says. Tests that have been carried out on monkeys show that the virus multiplies much faster in individuals that have alcohol in their systems. But it’s difficult to reach the right people with this information, the people who would need to hear it, says Karusa Kiragu. According to her, this is because of the strong relationship between the powerful alcohol industry and the media.

- The alcohol industry is so powerful and has very strong relationships with the media industry.

Massive marketing

Even though Mads Burmester claims that he hasn’t noticed or heard about any addiction problems in Malawi, he does say that he is aware that there are special conditions in the country.

So how does Carlsberg act in one of the poorest countries in the world, where the percentage of HIV positives is one of the highest on earth? It’s a country where almost half of the population is illiterate. A country in which a father who’s an alcoholic makes the difference between food on the table and starvation. Does Carlsberg have an additional responsibility here, where the Carlsberg brewery once started as part of an aid project? Absolutely, says Mads Burmester.

- We apply the same rules to advertising here as in Europe.

You apply the same rules here as in all other countries?

- Yes we do. For example, we advertise where only adults can see it, not to people under the age of 23. And we don’t encourage addiction.

The code doesn’t correspond with what we see

If you travel around in Malawi you will see that Carlberg is constantly present. There are numerous big advertisements along the roads and in the countryside it’s not uncommon to find entire houses painted in Carlsberg green with the logotype in white across the wall.

And Mads Burmester still claims that Carlsberg has the same rules for marketing in Malawi as in Europe.

But when we read the Carlsberg code for marketing and compare it to what we see and hear ourselves during our visit to Malawi there are a lot of things that don’t add up.

The code says: Avoid implying that drinking the brand is linked with wealth or professional succes

Carlsberg published a full page ad in one of Malawi’s biggest newspapers. The picture shows students celebrating their degree, an obvious sign of success in a country where half of the population is illiterate. They hold beers in their hands and the text reads “You deserve it! Drink Carlsberg Gold and have more fun with your friends”.

”Strong and full of character”

The code says: Avoid linking strength with quality
“Placing emphasis on the alcoholic strength of a beer and implying it is to be preferred because of its extra strength breaches the Code.”

When Carlsberg launched their new extra strong beer – Elephant beer – in Malawi last winter they once again placed a full page ad in the paper.

The text read: Drink Elephant beer when you want a beer with more alcohol than in other beers! A real elephant person is someone who is strong and full of character.

The code says: Advertisments should not show or encourage excessive or irresponsible drinking

Carlsberg has produced a slightly cheeper beer for the Malawian market that is called ”Kuche Kuche”, which means “Drink until dawn” in the local language Chichewa.

“Beer radio” aimed at a young audience

The Carlsberg code of marketing practice also states that the company should be careful about media placement and avoid media watched or read by minors.

Therefore we are astonished when we tune in to the commercial radio station Radio 101 Power on a Friday night. The programme that starts off the night is called ”Carlsberg – Turning on the music”. An entire programme filled with party music and young people who call the host, and the fundamental idea of the show seems to be for the host and dj to mention Carlsberg Gold, Green and Elephant as many times as possible.

The fact that Carlsberg also produces soda is not mentioned, despite the fact that it is something that the marketing director Mads Burmester willingly points attention to. Neither does the programme mention that beer is for adults, which should be clear in the advertisements according to Carlsberg’s own regulations.

Beer Bashes

Another full page ad from Carlsberg shows the silhouette of people dancing and it says:

”Carlsberg – probably the best festivals in Malawi”

Carlsberg Beer Bashes are what they are called by the people and among all the people we talk to the beer bashes are known as real boozing parties. Therefore we ask Mads Burmester about them. He says that he has never heard of the term “Beer Bash”, but he claims that Carlsberg organizes pleasant pub evenings with music and competitions and such.

- What we have is something that we call pub parties. They take place in a pub and we put on a party with music and we offer competitions where you can win prices and so on.

Geoffrey Chizoni is a 31 year old middleclass man who enjoys going out drinking beer. He has been to a Carlsberg Beer Bash.

- I am one of those people who drink. Yet it is one thing I don’t like about basheses, people who go there abuse the beer, sorry to use the word, but they drink the shit.

The organizers were only interested in selling as much beer as possible, the place where the party took place was covered in dark and full of drunken minors. Following every beer bash there have been reports of rapes, claims Geoffrey.

- At every bash I hear about rape, and it is not just a rape, it is a gang rape, two or three guys raping a girl. They are drunk!

The industry’s lobbying activities

Carlsberg is far from being the only global alcohol company that sees a future in Africa. Absolut is the world’s second largest vodka label in terms of sales, Smirnoff is number one. Both labels constitute key products for the world’s two largest liquor companies – British Diageo and French Pernod Ricard -  the latter purchased Absolut and V&S from the Swedish state last year.

They finance one of the alcohol industry’s most important lobbying organization together with about ten of the world’s biggest beer and liquor companies: the Washington-based think tank ICAP - International Center for Alcohol Policies.

In the past couple of years ICAP has carried out steady work in many African countries. They have among other things organized two major conferences in Cape Town and in Dar el Salaam. The aim is for their ideas to have an effect, to limit state regulations so as to give the alcohol industry liberty to act responsibly on its own initative.

But Dag Endahl from the Norwegian aid organization FORUT claims that ICAP is playing a cynical game in Africa, and that increased sales rather than public health are a priority.

- Their policy does not take into account the effects on public health, violence against women, HIV and poverty.

- They want an alcohol policy that doesn’t regulate the market but that encourages people to drink responsibly, “responsible drinking” as they put it. But they are extremely keen to avoid regulations of the market through increased taxes, a change of opening hours and age limits etc.

Critical researchers

In the past couple of years, ICAP’s consultants and those of the alcohol companies have travelled to a number of African countries carrying documents describing the alcohol policy that they want the countries to adopt. “Kaliber” has read several of these documents. They are practically identical from one country to another.

And it turns out that that none of the documents mention the measures that the researchers in the field consider to be the most effective in order to reduce the damage. The documents that we have read never mention increased taxes or restrictions to make access more difficult.

Thomas Babor at the University of Connecticut is one of the world’s leading researchers on alcohol:

- Increasing taxes on alcohol in order to reduce harm or restrictions on the time or the place or the density of alcohol outlets seem to be not only more effective in reducing the harm connected with alcohol but they are also less expensive to implement.

Babor says that these measures cost much less than campaigns for responsible drinking, which is what the industry advocates.

- Almost all of the reviews that have been made of hundreds of studies in different parts of the world come to the conclusion that education approaches are ineffective. The industry would like people to believe that their investments in responsible drinking are having an effect when in fact there is very little research to support that.

The think tank replies

Brett Bivans is deputy head at ICAP, a think tank that is financed by the world’s largest alcohol companies. But Brett Bivans says that those who claim that their activities in Africa are all about lobbying for a liberal policy on alcohol are wrong.

- They are incorrect in saying that we have a preconceived notion about the african context.

So why is there nothing about increased taxes or restricted availability in the documents?

- I would encourage governments that are participating in that process to include those aproaches.

Back in Nelson’s office

Before leaving Malawi we head back to where we started, back to Nelson Zakeyu’s simple office, in the dusty courtyard, in order to say good bye to him and his colleagues. He then tells us that the lobbyists from the alcohol industry have been here too, in Malawi. He participated in one of the meetings organized by them. And there was no mention of increased taxes or other restrictions. Only about educational efforts.

But Nelson Zakeyu is hopeful, despite the enormous difference in means between him and the industry that he spends all his energy fighting. If the Malawian people stand united and defy the industry, the industry will fail.

- When you are united you can do something. If people say - no we dont want that - they will fail.

Reporters: Jörgen Huitfeldt and Anders Holmberg
Producer: Sanna Klinghoffer