Austin Harris, KF11 Rwanda

Sorghum Beer

Ingredients:

1 kg. (2.2 lbs.) Sorghum
7g (1/4-ounce) Baking Yeast

Directions:

Soak sorghum in water, allowing it to begin germination.  Dry the partially germinated grains.  Crush the sorghum and boil in water for about 15 minutes.  Drain and put into a large vessel.  Add 4 liters of hot water and let sit for 1 hour.

Transfer liquid portion of mash to a large vessel and add 8 liters of hot water.  Let the mixture cool naturally until reaching room temperature.

Add the yeast and one cup of additional crushed sorghum malt (from germinated grains). Stir vigorously.

Ferment for 2 days at room temperature then strain beer into storage vessels.  Serve to thirsty customers.

Sorghum Beer

African sorghum beer is a brownish-pink beverage with a slightly tangy and sour taste. It has an alcohol content that can vary between 1% and 8%.  Its appearance is cloudy and is traditionally consumed at room temperature. Sorghum beer is known by many different names in various countries across Africa, including Burukuto (Nigeria), Pombe (East Africa) and Bil-Bil (Cameroon).

Importance of Sorghum

Sorghum is commonly grown in various parts of Africa.  The plant is drought and heat tolerant, which is especially important for growth in many of the arid regions.  For numerous rural people in Africa, it is one of the staple grains and can be used for food (e.g. porridge and dough), fodder, and beer.

Sorghum beer is produced regularly in many villages, and you can usually find someone with a large vat who serves the brew to locals.  From my experience in Rwanda, I have met many Kiva borrowers who generate a significant portion of their income from the sale of this beer.  This source of income is not limited to Rwanda, however, and is widespread throughout many regions of the continent.  For many poor and rural Africans, sorghum beer is a recipe for sustained livelihood.

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Rural Sorghum Beer Production in Question

Sorghum beer consumption is a part of the culture for many in Africa.  However, it is not without its problems.  As with other alcoholic drinks, abuse of the substance can lead to health, financial, and relationship problems.  In addition, batches of this beer produced in villages can vary dramatically in its alcohol content and ingredients, increasing the risk of consumption.   The destructive elements of this product bring into question the overall benefit from its production.

In 2008, the government of Rwanda outlawed the production of sorghum beer without a license.  This law was in response to incidents where tainted batches of the beer were served to people in towns and cities, creating a health concern.  Some batches were found to have sugarcane added to increase the alcohol content, some were found to have tobacco for added effect, and others were found to have red bricks added to enhance color.  The Rwandan government chose to regulate this industry in hopes of a more consistent and unadulterated product would be sold.

Future of Sorghum Beer

Despite the regulation, sorghum beer is still commonly produced and sold in rural areas of Rwanda without a license.  Villagers rarely can afford licensing fees or the processing requirements, yet continue to produce.  Rather than in a marketplace, the beer is more discretely sold in people’s homes and usually produced in small batches.  Though the villages have not suffered from altered batches as the towns and cities have, the batches are is still inconsistent and overconsumption is still an issue.

From my discussions with Rwandans, I have been told the government does not prosecute people in villages who sell sorghum beer out of their home.  Thus far, this vital source of income has not been lost for the poorest sectors of the country.  For now, this appears to be a temporary solution to providing regulation to towns and cities without disrupting this income stream to villages.  However, it does bring into question how the rural poor will be affected by future food and drink regulation.  In an attempt to protect the general public in developing countries, how much will you potentially hurt the most financially fragile?  This question will be struggled with in developing countries, with its verdict ultimately affecting the livelihood of Kiva borrowers and other rural poor.

Austin Harris is a Kiva Fellow with Urwego Opportunity Bank in Rwanda.  He is also a member of the Friends of Urwego lending group.


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