In the chronicles of Kenyan society, certain stories resurface with an unsettling regularity, leaving behind a darkness that overshadows their initial downfall.
VELO, a name once synonymous with the perils of tobacco nicotine pouches, was banned by the Ministry of Health way back in 2020.
However, VELO’s ominous revival has captured the thoughts and feelings of university and college students in an addiction and hopelessness trap.
VELO – Velocity Enhancer and Learning Optimiser – has stealthily infiltrated university and college campuses across the country, captivating students with the promise of academic prowess.
Marketed as a study aid, VELO has garnered a fervent following, attributed to its alleged ability to enhance focus, elevate energy levels and supercharge one’s cognitive performance.
Previously operating under the Lyft name in Kenya, it has assumed an international identity under the VELO brand.
However, in a statement BAT Kenya explained it previously imported tobacco-free nicotine pouches under the brand name LYFT.
“LYFT has never been banned in Kenya and was voluntarily withdrawn from the market in 2020 to facilitate a review of the regulatory framework by the Ministry of Health (MoH). The MoH subsequently guided that oral nicotine products would be regulated under the Tobacco Control Act, 2007,” BAT said.
The manufacturer also rejected claim VELO has been marketed as a study concentration product. “BAT Kenya has never marketed VELO as a study or velocity enhancer, or as a learning optimizer,” the statement went on.
The new persona resonates across borders, symbolising a shift in the reach and influence of the product.
For some, VELO is a well-kept secret, whispered among friends and passed on through concealed channels.
It is a name that carries mystique. If you’re in the know, VELO opens the door to a world where limits blur, focus sharpens and energy soars.
If you are a regular TikTok user, you have likely stumbled on spontaneous videos of young individuals engaging with the trending product.
Similarly, a simple search for “VELO in Kenya” will lead you to an array of content. Gone are the days of hiding the use of this substance.
Young people are openly consuming it and discussing their experiences, shattering the once-prevailing stigma.
The alarming story of VELO unfolds not as a tale of curiosity but as a harrowing fall into the depths of addiction.
Mary Mumbi*, a student, recounted her journey into the abyss to the Saturday Nation.
“When I joined Kenyatta University in 2022, I had no idea what VELO was. I first heard about it from friends. I got curious because, you know, campus life can be full of influences,” Mumbi said.
“The first time I tried VELO, I felt really awful. I had headaches and diarrhoea. It was a very strange experience and I swore never to touch that substance.”
Yet, peer pressure can be a compelling force.
Despite early discomfort, some students find themselves drawn back to VELO.
“I ended up doing it again. I felt really high this time. I became sleepy. The strange thing is, I have continued using VELO since. My parents and other close family members back in the village have no clue that I’m using it. They would never guess that it’s a drug. The smell of VELO helps me keep the secret” Mumbi added.
Daystar University student, James Otieno*, said his torturous journey into the world of VELO began with restlessness and uncertainty.
However, what followed in the subsequent six months would be nothing short of some transformation.
VELO, once an enigma, had become the student’s most trusted ally in the pursuit of focus and productivity.
“I was anxious and sweaty most of the time. That was in my second year of study. I had no idea how to use VELO properly. I ended up swallowing the substance and my legs became very weak. I was super restless and even started crying. Strangely enough, it only took two minutes to hit me,” he said.
“I have been using it for six months now, and it helps me remain focused. I can’t say I’m addicted to VELO but it does help a lot.”
According to the latest data from the National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada), one in every 53 Kenyans aged 15 to 65 (or 518,807 individuals) uses cannabis sativa or bhang, translating to a national prevalence rate of 1.9 per cent.
Nicole Waweru, 22, is a student at Daystar University. Her decision to steer clear of VELO was deliberate.
It was driven by the grim tales she saw and read on social media platforms.
Ms Waweru’s resolute stance against VELO echoes the concerns of many.
"I took the decision not to try VELO after watching and reading on
Tiktok some of the horror stories shared by the users,” she said.
“The stories gave experiences of users, some bordering on horror. Some users said they felt they were about to die while many others confessed that they were not sure they would wake up after going to bed.”
Ms Waweru said what helped her most was that she has never been a fan of nicotine.
“The idea of trying it has never crossed my mind,” the student said.
Locally, VELO stands out as the prevalent oral nicotine product. British American Tobacco (BAT), its producer, discreetly launched it in July 2022.
The move followed the decision of the government to ban the local brand, Lyft, due to endless disputes over regulatory compliance.
Then-Health Cabinet Secretary, Mutahi Kagwe, maintained that oral nicotine products were to adhere to the strict regulations outlined in the Tobacco Control Act of 2007.
BAT, on the other hand, argued that the nicotine in Lyft was not derived from tobacco but synthesised in a laboratory. The multinational was of the view that the product should be registered by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board.
Collins George, 22, student at Mt Kenya University, says he has heard of VELO, adding that he cannot use it because of the many scary stories about the product.
He has an aversion to tobacco and finds the growing popularity of VELO among young people concerning.
The first-hand accounts of others’ experiences with VELO have made George loath the substance.
“I have heard about it many times but don’t intend to try it. The stories narrated by users are really scary. The good thing is, I cannot stand tobacco,” George said.
Joan Muriuki, 23, student at Kenyatta University also does not see herself using VELO.
“It does not make sense at all. It never seems okay, and I feel like it’s poisonous. VELO is a tiny thing that makes one experience all manner of things,” Ms Muriuki said.
“I have seen friends using VELO and it just does not sit right with me.”
Ms Muriuki’s apprehension is emblematic of the growing concern about the resurgence of the substance.
As narratives of addiction and the effects of VELO continue to unfurl, more students like Muriuki have chosen to distance themselves from the trend.
Like others, Comfort Jeremy, 20, a student at KIPS College, says she has kept off the drug due to the negative stories she has heard about it.
“I have heard many people talk about VELO and its effects but have never attempted to use it,” Jeremy said.
Joy Salano, a 21-year-old student at the same university, says she has observed and witnessed colleagues use VELO.
Salano said the experiences of the users vary widely, with some exhibiting euphoria while others have reported having sudden headrushes.
She said a few others have even mentioned feeling nauseated after use.
“I have witnessed people using VELO. Many complain of persistent headaches. The most unfortunate situation is when becomes a VELO addict,” Salano said.
Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (Ketca) Communication and Digital Advocacy chief, Achieng Otieno, has expressed alarm following reports of nicotine pouches users becoming addicts.
Otieno said the addiction is like that of a cigarette.
“They sort of find it very difficult to quit. That is simply because of the nicotine,” he said.
“There is no doubt that oral nicotine pouches are highly addictive. The inscription on the package actually says the product contains a highly addictive substance.”
He says the addictive substance is nicotine.
“Nicotine is an addictive chemical that is naturally found in tobacco. Now that there has been a lot of awareness about cigarettes, some people are quitting smoking and the tobacco businesses know this,” Otieno said.
“They have taken the decision to come up with new products and are calling them oral nicotine pouches.”
Otieno insists that these tobacco products usually target young people, with college and university students being among the group.
“It is becoming a global challenge,” Otieno said, adding that the tobacco industry is prioritising profits over the health of young people.
“They are more concerned with how much they are making,” Otieno said.
The prevalence in high school, colleges and universities is very worrying, he added.
Otieno says the World Health Organisation (WHO) has been giving damning reports about nicotine use.
“It is unfortunate to see young people being targeted by these companies. It should be noted that their minds are still developing,” he said.
He accuses tobacco firms of not having the interests of young people and the country at heart.
“They only want to sustain their business. The more young people get addicted to these products, the more these things become marketable and the more demand rises,” he said.
“I talked about high school, but it goes even below that. Officials of the National Parents Association recently raised similar fears. They told us that primary school children are also using this product.”
But BAT clarified the firm’s policy is strict that its products are also not for underage persons.
"BAT believes and agrees that its nicotine products should be kept away from underage persons. In Kenya, we have a Prevention of Underage Access (PUA) programme in place, aimed at ensuring that our tobacco and nicotine products do not fall into the wrong hands. This includes placing clear health warnings and age restrictions as well as stating the active ingredients, on our product packaging.”
The statement added: “Further to compliance with applicable local laws, we have trade initiatives aimed at restricting access to underage persons at the point of sale and driving adherence with applicable regulations and guidelines governing the sale of our products.
“The best way to address the harm related with cigarettes, is to provide a regulatory and fiscal environment that recognises the potential of these new products and enables smokers to switch. We believe that by doing so, Kenya can reduce the projected health burden associated with smoking-related diseases. Notably, the significant lack of awareness, understanding and misreporting about these products and their science, remains the biggest threats to this happening. The participation of all stakeholders, including the media, Government and industry is key in delivering this.”
Editor’s note: This story has been edited to incorporate BAT’s comments.