Four years ago, Malawian teenager Anthony had ambitions to become a doctor, but in his last year at school he was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis after becoming hooked on cheap, strong liquor.
Campaigners in the southern African country say potent alcohol – ten times the strength of normal beer – is destroying young lives, potentially impacting the country’s development. They are calling for a complete ban on the liquor.
“Back then I never thought of the consequences,” said Anthony who asked not to give his second name. “We used to sneak out with friends to go drinking since it was cheap and easy to get but then I started getting ill often.”
Anthony, who lives with his uncle in Malawi’s commercial hub Blantyre, began missing class due to illness and his grades slipped. He started sleeping in hostels and often ended up in hospital.
“My ambition was to become a doctor but I performed miserably at the final examination. Now I assist my brother at his grocery shop.”
Anthony is one of many young people who have become addicted to cheap super-strength liquor since it appeared in Malawi about a decade ago.
One teacher told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that even some primary school children were drinking after class – the behaviour of some in her school indicated they were also drinking between lessons.
The super-strength liquor is called masacheti – derived from the word sachet because it used to be sold in small plastic pouches. The sachets cost as little as 100 Malawi Kwacha (14 cents) making them affordable to both the poor and the young.
Pressure groups, concerned about growing alcohol abuse among Malawi’s youth are pushing for new legislation on the production, distribution and sale of alcohol.
A draft alcohol policy drawn up by the Ministry of Health and non-governmental organisations, which includes recommendations to restrict young people’s access to alcohol, was presented to the cabinet for approval in 2015, but has still not been adopted.
Drug Fight Malawi (DFM), a group campaigning for tougher controls, said it believed the drinks industry had intervened to block the policy.
Malawi’s Information Minister Nicholas Dausi could not comment on the delay, but agreed alcohol was having a negative impact on development.
However, he said the government could not solve the problem alone – community leaders and families also needed to take responsibility.
There is limited data on alcohol use in Malawi, but a survey by the Ministry of Health and World Health Organization suggests nearly a fifth of men drink regularly.
Although alcohol use is much lower than in many countries, campaigners are concerned about an increase in heavy drinking among the young.
“The net effect is to create a wasted generation,” said DFM project officer Kulimbamtima Chiotcha. “Alcohol is … subverting the people’s right to development.”
Chiotcha, who is also a board member of the Southern African Alcohol Policy Alliance, added that alcohol related illnesses and deaths had increased in the last decade.
Oystein Bakke, an adviser with international development agency FORUT, which works with Malawian NGOs to curb heavy drinking, said alcohol was causing considerable harm in many countries in southern Africa with studies suggesting the poor were particularly badly affected.
“Malawi has a young population and alcohol is cheap and also easily accessible to youths. Good interventions are very much needed,” he added.
Numerous brands of cheap spirits with over 40 percent alcohol content are on sale throughout Malawi, where half the population lives below the poverty line.
Malawi banned cheap alcohol sachets in 2015 amid growing concern over alcohol abuse among the young and reports of children drinking in class.
But teachers and campaigners say the ban has not addressed the problem. Manufacturers now sell the liquor in 5-litre bottles and it is then decanted into small measures and sold from grocery stores and roadside shacks.
The alcohol is also being exported to neighbouring Mozambique.
On a rainy Monday morning, Michael is sitting head down in a makeshift building in a market in Blantyre’s Zingwangwa township. Now and then, the 16-year-old picks up a soft drinks bottle and pours out a tot of clear alcohol.
“I started drinking when I was 13, and now I can drink a large quantity without showing it,” he said, adding that the pocket money from his parents was enough to get him drunk.
Michael said he was aware of the risks, but found it difficult to stop.
“I fear for my health because of the stories I hear about my friends who’ve developed complications,” he said.
“I even know some older than me who have died because of drinking, but I also feel free when drunk.”