A year after 20 people in Kapiri Mposhi central Zambia were killed and others left blind after drinking methanol-laced jili jili vodka, the government has yet to release the full official report of the inquiry into the incident.
A year ago test results from the Zambia Medicines Regulatory Authority (ZAMRA) confirmed that the deaths of 20 Kapiri Mposhi residents between January and April 2022, was as a result of drinking jili jili vodka tainted with ethanol and methanol.
MakanDay Centre for Investigative Journalism has also seen test results from the National Drug Quality Control and the Zambia Bureau of Standards (ZABS) laboratories which show that the samples of jili jili Vodka contained both methanol and ethanol.
Effects of ethanol and methanol
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, methanol ingestion can cause an accumulation of acid in the blood, blindness, and death. Initial adverse health effects include among other things, drowsiness, confusion, headache, dizziness, the inability to coordinate muscle movement, heart and respiratory failure.
It was also established that the methanol contained alcohol did not have batch numbers, manufacturing and expiry dates and fell short of approved storage conditions.
A batch number is a designation given to products made in the same manufacturing run.
MakanDay has also established that the manufacturer was not registered with the Zambia Compulsory Standards Agency (ZCSA) at the time and was therefore producing the product illegally.
The implication of a product not being registered by the agency is that it cannot be provided with batch numbers.
This is just another example of the failures of Zambia’s numerous supervisory authorities, large in numbers but ineffective with the enforcement of compliance laws.
“As a precautionary measure, the establishment (company) has since been closed pending resolution of administrative, technical and legal matters with both local authorities and ZCSA,” said Brian Hatyoka, Head of Communication for the Zambia Compulsory Standards Agency.
It is not clear how the methanol-contaminated alcohol found its way on the market, but Hatyoka said “the Agency has a routine programme where market surveillance inspections are conducted to ensure continued compliance of products with standards”.
GSR Distilleries Limited product manager Kuma Reddy, told MakanDay his company has not been producing the Jili Jili Vodka product since April last year when it was stopped by government.
Reddy defended GSR against accusations that the alcohol originated from his company.
“Government institutions visited the company and tested the product and did not find any problem with it,” he said.
According to the Patent and Company Registration Agency (PACRA), GSR Distributors, a company registered in 2015 is owned by Masand Gopal Tikamdas, Kancharla Rahul Reddy, Dudipala Sudheer Kumar, Jinna Rohit Reddy and Kunduru Sreenivas Reddy.
The other shareholder is a company called Trust Secretarial and Accounting System Ltd – led by Henry Masauso Sakala, Branavan Jayantha Jayantha Ramalingam and Uma Jayantha Ramalingam.
Its business address is Kwacha Road, Industrial area, Kabwe – Central Province.
Kabwe council said the joint investigations with the Zambia Police “revealed that there are other people producing counterfeits of the said product and it would have been the same counterfeits causing adverse effects in human beings”.
Survivors speak out
Some of the survivors who developed irreversible blindness after accidental methanol intoxication agreed to speak to MakanDay.
One of them is Victor Sakala, 27, of Riverside in Kapiri Mposhi. He is among the six Kapiri residents who have gone blind after drinking Jili Jili Vodka.
Sakala said on the first day after the drink, he could only see white, but when the condition worsened, he was taken to a local clinic before he was referred to Mushimbili Hospital for specialist treatment.
“At Mushimbili Hospital, they could also not handle my case, so I was again transferred to Kabwe Central Hospital.”
He said he was admitted to hospital with two of his colleagues where they spent a month.
“As we were in hospital, we were put on medication but our condition was not improving,” he said. “When we were discharged, the doctor informed us that our sight was damaged and we will not be able to see again.”
Norton Mwamba, 28, another Kapiri resident narrated how his love for alcohol has changed his life for the worse. He said his life now entirely depends on his wife for support.
Mwamba is disappointed that he and other victims have been denied justice.
“A number of people died after they consumed this alcohol but nothing has been done by government, even when the company that was brewing the alcohol is still operating,” he said. “Is this how foreigners will be allowed to make money in our country while us Zambians are suffering?”
Mwamba’s wife, Serah Mushitu, said from the time her husband went blind, life has not been easy because he was the family’s breadwinner.
“My family is the one that supports us when we run out of supplies,” she said.
“I can’t do any business because my husband cannot remain alone at home, he needs my support to do anything.”
She added that their children have even stopped attending school because of the family’s new poverty.
Dexter Moomba, 32, a resident of Kapiri Mposhi’s Lukanga Swamp, consumed the alcohol on 24th March, 2022 and two days later he lost his sight.
He regrets the fact that the alcohol which cost a meagre K10 has cost him his sight.
“The doctor informed us that for us to see again it will only be by the grace of God,” he said. “The owner of the company should compensate us.”
Some of the survivors have been to government’s social welfare department where they were issued with certificates to confirm their blindness and have joined the Zambia Agency of Persons with Disabilities (ZAPD) membership.