Is Africa really a drunken continent?

A South African shebeen

"Africa has a drinking problem," declared a recent article in Time Magazine. But is the evidence there to support such a sweeping statement?

Kate Wilkinson, a researcher at the Africa Check website, is in a good position to know, and she stresses that drinking habits in the continent's 55 countries vary.

"There are different attitudes towards alcohol. Different religious beliefs about consuming alcohol. And to simply make this broad generalisation about the continent doesn't give us much insight," she says.

Reliable statistics on global alcohol consumption are hard to come by, and the numbers that we do have are quite old. Much of the World Health Organization's 2011 Global Status Report on Alcohol and Health relies on data from the period 2003-2005.

But to the extent that they can be relied on, the WHO numbers don't appear to support the claim made in the Time article, headlined Africa's Drinking Problem: Alcoholism on the Rise as Beverage Multinationals Circle.

The WHO report suggests that more than two-thirds (70.8%) of Africans have not touched a drop of alcohol for a year.

"That's largely because many African countries have large Muslim populations," explains Kate Wilkinson.

"If you look at how many people are lifetime abstainers - they don't drink alcohol at all and never have - that's 57.3%."

That hardly paints a picture of an entire continent struggling with alcohol.

There are, of course, some alcoholics in Africa.

Boniface Ndirangu, who runs two rehabilitation centres in Kenya, has many stories to tell about alcohol abuse. He is a reformed alcoholic himself.

"Alcohol has become probably the only source of relief for those out of work, the only source of relief from extreme poverty or joblessness," he says.

He blames new ranges of alcoholic drinks, which are very strong, very cheap, and, in his view, "very dangerous".

"With just £1 ($1.58) you can get yourself truly messed up, plus two or three other people too," he says.

But, stories like this do not mean that Kenya, let alone the whole of Africa, has a problem with alcohol.

Image caption Alcohol is on sale in some Muslim countries, Egypt for example

Let's take a closer look at the data from the World Health Organization.

The average global alcohol consumption is 6.13 litres of pure alcohol per person over the age of 15, per year. In Africa the average is 6.15 litres, just 20 millilitres higher. That's the equivalent to drinking one double measure (50ml) of whisky more each year.

Furthermore, the WHO excludes seven African countries from the calculation altogether. Crucially, these are countries with large Muslim populations where alcohol is either restricted or banned. If these were included, Africa's average consumption would be lower.

Europe, by contrast consumes 12.18 litres per year - almost double the African figure. So why is it Africa that allegedly has a drink problem?

Perhaps Kenya, the main focus of the Time Magazine article is an outlier?

It does not appear to be so. According to the WHO, Kenya's alcohol consumption per capita is 4.14 litres, putting it 118th out of a list of 189 countries. Moldova tops the table with a per capita consumption of 18.22 litres of pure alcohol. The UK is ranked 17th.

But there is a third way to look at the data - and that is to look at the numbers on binge drinking, or "heavy episodic drinking" to use the formal term. This is important because it is the most harmful way of drinking to the individual concerned.

According to the World Health Organization, a binge drinker is someone who consumes 60g (75ml) or more of pure alcohol on at least one occasion in any week.

That's 7.5 units in UK terms, or about three pints of strong beer.

When the WHO looked at heavy episodic drinking among those who do drink - and remember that drinkers are the minority in Africa - it found Africa had the highest proportion in the world.

In Kenya, while it is the case that 85% of the population had not had a drink in the past year (when the WHO data was gathered) - compared with just 14% in the UK - the people who had drunk alcohol, had consumed a lot. Almost twice as much per person as in the UK.

Where does this leave us?

Simply looking at average alcohol consumption statistics in Africa would certainly cast doubt on the idea that "Africa is drunk".

But taking a second look reveals those binge drinkers.

While averages are useful, they are not the only statistical fact worth considering.

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