The nation waited eagerly for the 10th Presidential speech on the Covid-19 update. As soon as he walked to the podium without one of his notable and famed Kitenge shirts, players in the entertainment industry could already predict things would not be rosy. “There will be no sale of alcohol drinks and beverages in eateries and restaurants across the territory of the Republic of Kenya, effective at midnight (Tuesday), for the next 30 days. Bars shall remain closed until further notice,” read President Uhuru Kenyatta in a statement on Monday, a proclamation that virtually broke the spine of showbiz.
The statement sealed the fate of an industry that has been smarting from the effects of the pandemic, ever since a dusk to dawn curfew was imposed in March. Last week, the Pubs, Entertainment and Restaurant Association of Kenya (Perak) had put the Government on notice, estimating that the banning of consumption of alcohol inside their premises will result in loss of revenues to the tune of Sh50 billion. In addition, Perak chair, Alice Opee added, 500,000 Kenyans risked losing their jobs.
Perak was responding to a draft regulation attributed to the Ministry of Health, which had proposed to ban the consumption of alcoholic drinks in areas where they were regularly and legally consumed, in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus. “We have noted with concern the draft regulation by the Ministry of Health in circulation. If the proposal is approved, about 500,000 of our youths will be rendered jobless and businesses are likely to collapse,” Ms Opee said.
Same week, Kiambu Governor James Nyoro ordered all wines and spirits shop in the county to close by Friday of last week. “Any person operating a bar or a wines and spirits shop must close it between today and Friday failure to which, we will close those joints ourselves and arrest the owners,” he said in Limuru. Wines and spirit stores have remained largely untouched, quenching the thirst of Kenyans, some of whom have turned their homes into bars.
In late June, Bars, Hotels and Liquor Traders Association of Kenya estimated that its member had lost Sh1 billion in three months, apart from laying off thousands of workers. Earlier this month, the association was at it again, asking the State to allow them to reopen their businesses. According to the chairman, Simon Njoroge, they were ready to face stringent conditions than remain closed.
“All other businesses have been opened with certain conditions. We are also ready to abide by the rules for us to be allowed to operate,” he said. “Covid-19 is not going anywhere. We, therefore, must find ways of living with it.” Unlike restaurants, which were operational, but under conditions, bars remained closed, and the members the industry was on its deathbed.
As the associations and lobbyists tried to push the Government’s hand, it seemed profits and business survival did not matter much to a government trying to help Kenyans survive the pandemic, healthwise. From bad habits that involved citizens drinking alcohol past curfew hours, to restaurants operating in hours they shouldn’t, the Government decided alcohol was the weak link. In his address, the President warned restaurant owners of dire consequences including loss of licenses for breaching the orders.
Immediately after the address, memes started, initially trolling Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja for the President’s directive, the super Senator embarrassed himself after being arrested at an establishment along Dennis Pritt Road, way past the curfew hours. Then they moved to images and videos of Kenyans stocking up alcohol from wines and spirits stores.
But what does the President’s directive mean for thousands of Kenyans who depend on the industry for survival? Waiters, cleaners, cooks, bouncers and deejays, most of them in the youth demography, feed their families through an industry that thrives on alcoholic beverage sales. According to the National Authority for Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) Director, and comedian Vincent ‘Chipukeezy’ Mwasia, it wasn’t their wish to have entertainment spots closed or sale of alcohol banned, but the behaviour portrayed by revellers leaves a lot to be desired.
“Kenyans have become dependent on alcohol so much it is now trickling down to affect the underage who have also been engaging in binge drinking. Some of the videos posted on social media are wanting and you can clearly see how ignorant party lovers fail to adhere to set regulations,” he stated, adding that NACADA is fighting the increased rates of drug and alcoholic dependency.
“You read about the prohibition era? It’s happening here. People will sell alcohol from their homes, from the back of their vehicles and many other places you never expect,” said a prominent radio personality on a sports show. “And, where do men take all that energy if not brothels?” The effects on the closure of entertainment spots is already taking a toll on the affected parties. Clubs that had leased premises are now being slapped with huge rent arrears that they can barely settle.
“It is sad that a lot of people who depend on this industry are now stuck in a dilemma not knowing what to do,” says renowned hospitality marketer, Bevon Situma. “When a former employee, a bouncer or waitress, calls to ask for financial help because of a sick child or lack of food, it can be really heartbreaking when you know you cannot offer any help. The job losses are leading some into depression. You can hear it in their voices when they talk, they are completely shattered.”
Event organisers are also facing the same problem with equipment worth millions of shillings locked up and engulfed in dust. “We had really prepared for 2020 events and beauty pageants, but all that, which translates to millions of shillings, has gone to waste. Stage and lighting equipment for the events are rotting away and some were acquired through bank loans,” says event organiser Leakey Odera.
So dire is the situation that deejay Crème De La Crème opted to relocate his family to his rural hometown, Kericho. “Showbiz paid all my bills and with the restrictions being hard on the entertainment industry, gigs have been hard to come by, so I opted to move my family to a town that is within my means and cut on spending. Nairobi is definitely shamba la mawe when there is no showbiz. You can barely survive in it.” Deejay Charlie who played at an upmarket club in Kilimani says he was startled by the news.
“We have been off the business for months now and the partial opening of club business was helping us earn a little, but now I could easily turn to farming in my village.” Various alcoholic drink suppliers are crying foul for unpaid deliveries while club owners have resulted in indefinitely shutting down their premises and personally delivering alcoholic beverages to their phone contacts on order.
“There’s nothing left to do. I simply stock my car boot, make phone calls and do rounds in my car as I deliver alcohol,” said a prominent club owner who sought anonymity. “That’s the only way I can pay my bills. We are suffering and I can assure you that it shall take a very long time before the showbiz dynamics normalise.” As this is happening, revellers who now have no option, but to indulge in house parties, city estates and private brothels are now finding themselves hooked to alcohol and other recreational drugs leaving the question whether we are opening another pandemic amid the Covid-19 crisis.