Long before he became a top candidate for the Democratic Presidential ticket, Senator Barack Obama was inspiring a particular brand of prideful Obama-mania in Kenya, the birthplace of his late father, Barack Obama Sr., and the current home of his paternal grandmother. If the senator wins the nomination and even the Presidency, many Kenyans will be clinking glasses filled with a beloved product here that has hitched itself to the coattails of his fame and success: “Obama” beer.
Known officially as Senator Keg but as “Obama” by drinkers, the barley-based beer is marketed specifically by its manufacturer—East African Breweries Limited, or EABL, a subsidiary of London-based Diageo—to low-income consumers who have few options for a safe, affordable, and legal beer.
EABL’s corporate affairs director, Ken Kariuki, says it was purely coincidence that Senator Keg launched in November, 2004, the same month that Obama won his U.S. Senate seat. But the connection is far from lost on Kenyans, who are intensely proud of the politician and his roots. “Obama is the man, and his family comes from my province,” said Nicolas Adero, 26, who was recently found in a Nairobi bar downing several glasses of Senator beer from a plastic dispenser that resembled a bong. The beer sells for about 30¢ a glass.
Home Brew and Moonshine
Barack Obama Sr. left Kenya at age 23 to study at the University of Hawaii on an economics scholarship. In Honolulu he met and married fellow student Ann Dunham, Obama Jr.’s mother, but left when his son was two to study at Harvard. He and Dunham soon divorced and he eventually returned to Kenya, dying there in a car crash in 1982. Many people in the Luo tribe—Obama Sr.’s tribe—have named their children Obama, especially ones who were born after Sen. Obama came to visit in 2006.
Today, more than half of Kenya’s population of 32 million lives on less than a dollar a day. Mainstream Kenyan alcohol brands, like EABL’s top-selling Tusker beer which sells for $1 to $3 a bottle, are out of reach for most. Filling the gap are small-scale home brewers who have developed an array of low-priced spirits and moonshine known in Swahili as busaa and chang’aa. These informal products account for 57% of all alcoholic beverages consumed in Kenya. Cornmeal-based chang’aa often goes for as little as 13¢ per glass.
Unfortunately, these products often contain dangerous substances that producers believe will speed up fermentation—noxious additives such as fertilizers, battery acid, or formalin that can blind and even kill. In June, 2005, 51 drinkers died and a dozen were blinded from a particularly toxic batch of homebrew laced with battery acid in a district outside Nairobi. “The big challenge is that there are many players still selling illicit liquor and giving alcohol a very bad name,” says EABL’s Kariuki. “They spike and adulterate their products to give them more kick and end up with harmful concoctions.”
Hard to Keep Up With Demand
The threat to public health resulted in an unusual agreement, according to EABL: the Kenyan government would rescind excise taxes and, in exchange, EABL would sell a clean alcoholic beverage far below the price of other regulated beers. The beer existed before Obama went to the U.S. Senate, but only in bottles. The company launched the keg version when Obama won his seat.
Demand for Senator Keg has been surging ever since, and EABL is hard pressed to keep up. In Nairobi alone, distributors deliver 8,000 50-liter Senator kegs a day. Kariuki says in April the company expects to open a new production line in its Nairobi factory to boost capacity.
Eliza Barclay is a freelance correspondent.