Popular alcoholic beverage in Uganda may soon be criminalized

  • Tonto is a popular alcoholic drink in Uganda, known for its fruity aroma and being weaker than bottled beer.
  • The beverage’s production is threatened by the increasing popularity of cheap bottled beer and government efforts to curb illicit home brews.
  • A national assembly bill seeks to regulate alcohol production, potentially criminalizing home brewing of traditional drinks.

At least once a week, Girino Ndyanabo’s family converges around a pit in which bananas have been left to ripen. The bananas are peeled and thrown into a wooden vat carved like a boat, and the patriarch steps in with bare feet.

The sweet juice he presses out is filtered and sprinkled with grains of sorghum, which converts the juice into ethanol, and left to ferment for up to a day. The result is a beverage Ugandans call tonto, or tontomera, a word in the Luganda language that alludes to drinkers’ poor coordination. Weaker than bottled beer, the drink has a fruity aroma and bits of sorghum floating on its dark surface.

Tonto is legendary in Uganda. Folk singers have crooned about it, politicians seeking a common touch take a sip when hunting for votes, and traditional ceremonies terminate at dusk with tonto parties. Its devotees are many, ranging from officials in suits to laborers in sandals.

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But its production is under threat as cheap bottled beer becomes more attractive to drinkers and as authorities move to curb the production of what are considered illicit home brews, which have the risk of sometimes deadly contamination. And because tonto production takes place outside official purview, authorities are unable to collect revenue from its sale.

People drinking tonto

Benson Muhereza drinks tonto at a local bar in Majengo village, Mbarara, Uganda, on Dec. 10, 2023. Tonto is a popular traditional drink in Uganda, but the fermented banana juice is under threat as authorities move to regulate the production of what are considered illicit home brews. (AP Photo/Hajarah Nalwadda)

A bill in the national assembly seeking to regulate the production and sale of alcohol would criminalize the activities of home brewers of tonto, along with other traditional brews made across this East African country.

But farmers have a more pressing concern: Not enough new banana juice cultivars are being planted to produce the brew. Communities are prioritizing the more commercially viable varieties that are boiled and eaten as a popular mash called matooke.

Ndyanabo, a farmer in the western district of Mbarara whose first experience with tonto was as a little boy in the 1970s, said he has only a few plants left of the cultivars from which the banana juice is extracted.

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He sources his bananas one bunch at a time from farmers near him until he can fill the small pit on his plantation. The natural underground heat ripens the bananas within days as Ndyanabo prepares for the weekly pressing.

The event is so important in the family’s routine that they can’t imagine a time when there would no tonto to sell.

While Ndyanabo said his weekly brew has an assured market, he has seen both demand and supply slow in recent years. This is partly because the retail price of tonto has been largely static over the decades, while the process of brewing it has become more cumbersome.

The distances traveled in search of bananas have grown. The price of sorghum has gone up.

“You take a lot of time doing this work. It’s not as easy as someone who cuts matooke, puts it on a bicycle and sells it for cash immediately,” Ndyanabo said of the green bananas that are eaten raw as a Ugandan staple. “Alcohol comes from very far.”

He’s been trying to plant more of the banana juice cultivars that are known to grow faster. And his son, Mathias Kamukama, is always there to help.

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The family makes five or six 20-liter jerricans in each batch. A jerrican’s worth sells for the equivalent of about $8. A half-liter of tonto retails for about 27 cents, compared to 67 cents for the cheapest bottled beer.

One customer is Benson Muhereza, an electrician who regularly visits a small bar in a poor suburb of Mbarara.

“It’s like a favorite drink when you have your lunch. It’s like a juice. When you don’t want to take beer, you come and have your tonto,” Muhereza said.

He described tonto like a “porridge” that doesn’t give him a hangover. “Every day you should have it,” he said.

Christine Kyomuhangi, the tonto seller, said she receives two jerricans of the brew every day. She acknowledged the threats to her business but smiled, insisting her work is sustainable. She said customers come from all over the city.

“Tonto will never get finished,” she said.

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