WhatsApp to the aid of pubs amidst a post-pandemic glut

Apishi’s number was recorded almost at the same time in two of my friends’ missed call logs. And it was not by accident that they hadn’t picked her calls. None was willing to return the call either. They were simply drifting away, avoiding her like the plague, and I was jesting with them as to why two adult men could not answer her and simply tell her the truth.

Apishi was calling to offer them a mid-week drink at JB’s. I found the offer of a drink in the middle of January’s inflation as something to go for. But not so with my friends. One felt slighted that Apishi had assumed that he had nothing to do in the middle of the day on a Tuesday. The two of them recognized it for the well-laid trap they had paid dearly previously. The offer was a way to lure them to JB’s, but after a few drinks, they would be left to do the needful—settle the hefty bill. 

When you drink long enough at a local in Nairobi’s Umoja, you get drawn into a specific crowd and a conversation over a football match or politics soon turns them into friends. My friends have been drawn into Apishi’s circle, and for a while, they imbued the inviting debauchery that thirty-year-olds can enjoy in the company of twenty-year-olds.

The girls are younger and more fun, with each generation having watered-down ideas on good upbringing and the boys are simply reckless, hardly do they contend with the worries of family and bills. They drink from Monday to Sunday, waking up to reminisce over the escapades of the previous night, which form a basis for more drinking the following day, and the endless cycle goes on, turning like an airport baggage carousel. 

But these guys in Umoja do not pay the bills. A typical evening begins with a call similar to Apishi’s. Thereafter, the thirsty pack assembles at JB’s near Sango over a bottle of gin, Chrome or Gilbeys, depending on who places the first order. Then, as more friends make a beeline, the orders start flying in from all directions, all the while encouraged by JB, who hovers around their tables at high frequencies, encouraging them to refill their half-empty glasses.

By the time they get to the ungodly hour of three in the morning, the loudest of the lot will be dozing off at the tables. Around that time is when JB drops the bill. And all of a sudden, almost always, urgent phone calls come in, and one or two of them have to move away from the blaring throb of Chwado gi Nyundo’s toxic vulgarity to answer the call from a less noisy place.

Others will simply slink into the shadows away from the glare of the disco lights. Don’t be fooled, the game is on! They are evading shouldering part of the bill. In the end, my thirty-year-old friends, and maybe one or two of the younger boys who are employed, fish out their wallets and help settle the bill.  

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JB’s drinking place is typical of the enterprises that sustain our fragile economy, resting as they do on their flamingo legs. The one thing that typifies them is the extent of duplication and lack of imagination. The duplicity of M-PESA shops, butcheries, boutiques, salons and now the ubiquitous wines-and-spirits outlets is a gross case of copy-pasting that ends up cannibalizing the limited market. 

JB’s liquor store is positioned at the heart of Umoja, where you are likely to get a wines-and-spirits outlet at the corner of the next apartment block as you turn the street. JB’s is one of the 1,648 liquor stores that were opened in 2020, a jump from the 440 outlets opened the previous year.

The wines-and-spirits shops are a no-brainer for any middle-class Kenyan looking for a side hustle. The barriers to entry are minimal. You only need Kes12,000 for a 12-month license and Kes7,000 for half a year license after Nairobi County reviewed the rates downwards in the County Finance Bill 2021 compared to a bar that would require Kes25,000 and Kes15,000 respectively. Thereafter you place your stock of booze on the shelves and are ready to do business. 

This ease of entry informed the explosion of wines-and-spirits businesses during the Covid-19 crisis that saw a 274 percent uptick in licensed outlets at a time 1.7 million Kenyans had lost their jobs and were seeking alternative means of survival.

The number of customers have been on a steady increase, with the leading alcohol producer, East African Breweries Limited, which makes Kes109.5 billion annually across East Africa, noting that consumption of hard liquor increased 1.5 times or 54 percent in 2022 compared to 2019 just before the pandemic. 

According to the 2022 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics statistical abstract, Kenyans splurge on average two percent of their monthly expenditure on alcohol and narcotics, with Nairobi middle-class folks leading the pack, spending up to 3.5 per cent on beer.

The data shows that over the past two years, alcohol consumption has gone up, with the lower classes increasing their spending on spirits from 0.1 percent to 0.8 percent. The middle class on the other hand have increased their beer consumption from 0.7 percent of their monthly incomes to 3.5 percent. As for the upper class, they have diverted to spirits, which are taking up 1.1 percent of their expenditure, up from 0.4 percent.

While the increase can be attributed to increased alcohol consumption, there is the element of taxes, which have specifically targeted alcoholic products, with excise or ‘sin taxes’ adjusted annually to cover inflation.  

Even with the increased patronage the proliferation of booze joints has meant thinner margins, which have made the business cutthroat. Now the businesses have to compete on price, location and, most importantly, customer loyalty. 

In Umoja, wines-and-spirits joints, bars and nightclubs hug the curves of Moi Drive, the main road artery in the populous hood, with matatus serving as the primary source of customers, their passengers having an array to choose from as they alight. The fight for visibility has seen a new development in the Eastlands estate, where 20-foot partitioned shipping containers are stacked at selected vacant lots, and which offer low-cost shops ideal for this type of business.

The problem is these locations tend to attract enterprises plying the same business. When JB opened his joint on the top deck of stacked containers near Sango at the middle of the pandemic, his greatest selling point, at least to us, was that you could drink past curfew hours. Bar owners have a symbiotic relationship with the police, who collect between Kes150 and Kes500 daily in exchange for extending operational hours and—during the pandemic—breaking the curfew.

When the curfew ended, however, the comparative advantage ceased and the owner instead sought to compete on upgrading his location. First JB bought out the competition, acquiring six containers and pooling them into a hybrid of a wines-and-spirits outlet and a nightclub, licenses notwithstanding.

The party lights never go out in Umoja’s Pewa street where bars hugging the street keep their doors open 365 days a year.

This meant additional rent and JB has had to raise his prices to meet the extra expenses. Problem is, four other similar joints operate next door, paying less rent, and the competition is showing. JB got a gut punch. 

Lately, JB has come up with a new strategy; building a following around his outlet on social media platforms that aims to attract patrons from beyond Umoja. The initial plan was to ramp in customers by inviting popular Luo musicians to stage shows, but one incident sparked protests from residents forcing him to change tact.

Instead, he started inviting popular musicians like Osogo Winyo, ‘the bird’, not to perform, but to sit around as influencer marketers in order to pull in fans and therefore customers. Despite the fact that there were days when you would find just one or two people on the wide platform that JB constructed straddling the six containers, JB has not shut down yet. The reason might be something quite unlikely; a WhatsApp group.

Local bar outlets have assumed a trend where they encourage loyal customers to join WhatsApp groups that they set up to popularize their joints. Most of the local pubs I have been to have such WhatsApp groups organizing goat-roasting, fundraising for funerals, and football match events. But most of the time they end up being platforms for banter about who has arrived at JB first.

My friends say the only way to quit alcohol would be to, among others, quit these groups and hopefully the company they come with. “After a lot of thought, I realized I did not want to be in the group any longer this year. It is just for posting who is at the bar in the morning and every time you are there they are taking pictures of you and uploading. I just wanted out,” a friend told me.

Yet today, he has been forcibly returned to the group, living true to Don Corleone’s ‘Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me right back in’.  

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