Nursing a hangover today? You're not alone: South Africa, Gabon, Namibia biggest drinkers in Africa

Africa's hardest drinkers, as measured by how far they diverge from the broader society, are - surprisingly - in Chad, Mali and Guinea.

THIS weekend, two stories emerged from opposite sides of the continent, that suggest Africa has a big drinking problem; but data from the World Health Organisation reveals that the nature of drinking - and the drink of choice - varies widely through the continent.

Rich countries in Africa tend to drink mainly beer; Spanish and French-colonised countries love their wine. Spirits aren’t very popular, but those countries that do the “hard drinks” tend to be island or coastal countries, while those that grow a lot maize, millet or sorghum will mostly do traditional brews from grain - but even so, there are surprises in the data.

In Kenya, the national anti-alcohol government agency released some shocking statistics, suggesting in one county of 816,000 registered voters, there are 450,000 heavy drinkers, who spend the equivalent of $143 million on alcohol every year, which is more than the county’s annual budget of $129 million.

South Africa is mulling raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21, in a bid to reduce alcoholism; government data indicates that birth defects linked to alcohol abuse are 141 times higher than in the US.

Data from the World Health Organisation reveals that South Africa is the continent’s biggest drinkers per capita, downing 11.0 litres of pure alcohol every year. The Africa average is 6.0 litres per capita.

Gabon is in second place at 10.9 litres, and Namibia third at 10.8 litres. These three countries are relatively rich countries in Africa, and their main drink of choice is beer. 97% of the alcohol consumed in Namibia is beer - the country is famous for its Windhoek lager, a light brew named after its capital city.

In Gabon too, beer makes up the bulk of alcohol consumed, at 68%, with 12% wine and 20% from spirits.

In big-tippling South Africa, the mix is more evenly distributed, probably a reflection of the wide income disparities in the country. Beer makes up slightly less than half of the alcohol consumed, while wine is about a fifth of consumption, relatively large for an African country - South Africa is the continent’s biggest wine exporter, with the vineyards mainly concentrated in the Western Cape region.

Spirits make up 17% of alcohol in the country, the same proportion as traditional brews such as umqombothi - made famous by Yvonne Chaka Chaka’s popular song by the same name.

Africa’s fourth biggest drinkers is Nigeria, where 91% of the alcohol consumed isn’t beer, wine, spirits or grain-based. It’s a heady brew called ogogoro - also known in Ghana as akpeteshie - made from juice of the raffia palm, which is tapped and allowed to sit for a few days. 

It’s then boiled and distilled, to collect a potent drink that is 30-60% pure ethanol -  light lager, by comparison, is 4-5%, wine is 13-16%, and whisky, vodka and brandy is about 40%.

The next three big drinkers in Africa are in East Africa, neighbouring countries that have bananas in common. Uganda and Rwanda down 9.8 litres of alcohol per capita every year, and Burundi does 9.3 litres; about 90% of the alcohol consumed in these countries is traditional brews.

Uganda is famous for its waragi, a generic term for traditional gin made from a variety of ingredients, including cassava, bananas, millet or sugar cane. There are also brews such as pombe and lubisi, generic terms for millet or banana beer. In the central and southern regions, the main brew is called tonto, made from bananas infused with fermented sorghum.

Maize, millet and sorghum brews are common in Eastern and Southern Africa, where they are known by various names such as chibuku (Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi), caporoto (Angola), busaa (Kenya), ikigage (Rwanda) and umqombothi (South Africa). In Rwanda and Burundi, the main drink is a banana wine called urwagwa. 

Africa’s biggest wine drinkers - as a proportion of the total alcohol consumed - are Equatorial Guinea (72% wine) and Sao Tome and Principe (60%), colonised by Spain and Portugal respectively, and the wine tradition is part of the colonial legacy. The Africa average is 10.9%.

In Senegal, even though the country has  a relatively low alcohol consumption per capita, there’s a big wine drinking culture with 41% of alcohol being wine, the same goes for Morocco (36%) and Algeria (35%). 

When it comes to spirits, Liberia is by far the biggest consumer of spirits as a proportion of total alcohol consumed, at 88%. Djibouti, Comoros and Niger also have more than 40% of alcohol being spirits, as well as Madagascar, famous for its rum. 

Most of these countries don’t charge excise duty for alcohol imports, making the importation of whisky, brandy, rum and gin a profitable venture.

But the most unexpected trend in the data is revealed when you compare per capita drinking with the amount of alcohol consumed by drinkers only. In other words, do the habits of drinkers reflect that of the broader society, or are they in a wholly separate caste? 

The data reveals that Africa’s hardest drinkers, as measured by how far they diverge from the broader society, are in Chad, Mali and Guinea, where the overall consumption is just 1.5 - 4.5 litres, but the drinkers down a whopping 30 litres of pure alcohol every year.

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