Zanzibar's beer price spikes amid importer shakeup



Photo credit: File

The sun paints the Zanzibar sky a fiery farewell, but the usual clinking chorus of nightlife is replaced by an unnerving silence.

Not a bottle pops, not a cap flies, for paradise faces a chilling truth: beer, the lifeblood of its bars and beaches, is fast becoming prohibitively expensive.

What began as a whisper of scarcity for popular brands like Kilimanjaro has morphed into an island-wide drought. 

Stores struggle to keep shelves stocked, and prices have skyrocketed by almost 100 percent in Stone Town and tourist havens like Paje and Kendwa.

Local beers now command a steep Sh3,000 to Sh4,000 price tag, leaving both locals and tourists reeling.

"There's a real shortage," sighed a bar manager at Maisara. "You can't be sure of having stocks, let alone at yesterday's price. We simply can't sell at the old rates."

A liquor dealer, Mr Peter John Sige echoes the frustration, saying for the last two weeks, his business has battled a crippling lack of beer. 

"This is our livelihood," he says, a hint of desperation in his voice. "There are talks of changing agents due to regulations, but this sudden shift has thrown everything into chaos."

Mr Frank John Kahamu, a secretary at the Amani Alcohol Merchants Union, paints a stark picture. 

"This shortage hits hard," he declares. "Amani alone has over 3,000 people in bars, employed or self-reliant. If this continues, layoffs are inevitable. We can't keep paying wages with empty shelves."

Stabilizing the market, he warns, will be a long and painful journey, even after deliveries resume. 

The sudden change in importers, he believes, has shaken the entire supply chain.

Tourist hotels in Nungwi, Kendwa, and Paje are bearing the brunt of the crisis. 

Guests accustomed to sunset sips find themselves facing dry taps, adding to the growing disappointment with the island's current state.

The businessmen say the root of the problem lies with the Zanzibar Liquor Control Board (ZLCB).

Their delayed permits for the three established importers - One Stop, Scotch Store, and ZMMI - sparked the initial hiccups.

But, a more drastic decision followed on January 2, 2024, the board refused to renew licenses for these seasoned players, who had served the islands for over two decades.

Newcomers were granted licenses, but they remain empty shells, yet to bring in a single bottle.

The Citizen's investigation reveals a lengthy vetting process for new importers, as they need to comply with manufacturers' code of conduct.

This, observers fear, could prolong the agony, potentially taking up to six months.

Importers pay a hefty Sh30 million annual fee to the board to be licenced and Zanzibar law also demands importers be Zanzibari residents with a clean tax record, a warehouse, and a delivery vehicle.

Efforts to reach Liquor Board chairman Juma Chum proved futile. Phone calls went unanswered, texts, too, were not replied.

The sudden policy shift hangs heavy in the air, an unanswered question mark looming over Zanzibar's parched shores.

The first official alarm bell was rung by former Minister of Tourism and Heritage Simai Mohammed Said. 

Meeting with tourism stakeholders last week, he painted a stark picture of Zanzibar's dependence on tourism, a sector contributing over 30 percent of the island's Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

"We've seen the board's decision," he said, frustration in his voice. "Hotels face shortages, businesses struggle. I urge investors to remain patient while we seek for solutions."

According to him, efforts to reach the Liquor board chairman for the stakeholders’ meeting on that day did not bear fruit.

Two days later, Mr Simai resigned.

Zanzibar's thirst for normalcy remains unquenched. The familiar clink of glasses, the laughter echoing from bustling bars, has been replaced by an anxious murmur with no end in sight and for now only time will tell.