Amayi Ngulube, a toothless middle aged uneducated mother of 5, from the backwaters of Ndirande township supports her children by brewing the illicit beer – kachasu. Favoured by poor university students, unskilled labourers, and the vagabonds of the neighbourhood for its low cost and potency – kachasu is strong enough to even grow a hair on a young boys chest. Its power has incapacitated giants leaving them as loud burbling drunken idiots only after taking a sip or two in the shanty taverns.
Now you may wonder what is talk of local brews got to do with a science engagement blog..everything. Because this is a perfect example of people, local people, rural people, uneducated people engaging with science and a spark of genius has gone further to deduce that anti-retroviral drugs can speed up the fermentation process! Of course this is shameful abuse of lifesaving drugs but before I go down this route, let us look at how uneducated African women have championed chemistry and distillation.
Kachasu is normally brewed from maize but finger millet and various fruits like banana peels (banana wine) can be used. The process involves adding the carbohydrate source such as maize husks to warm water in a pot which has a hole drilled on the side. Once heated up for a few minutes, it is taken off the fire, cooled down and sugar and yeast are added. The pot is completely sealed with clay and allowed to ferment for 4-7 days. Following this, a narrow pipe encased with cool water is connected to the hole in the pot. The pot is placed on a fire and once boiling, the narrow pipe condenses or cools any hot vapours escaping from the pot into a liquid which is collected in small containers. The liquid is kachasu and its strength can vary from 20% to even 70% alcohol according to a study done at the University of Zambia.
A comparison of Amayi Ngulube kachasu distillation equipment may reveal a shabby unhygienic set up but the principles and the product are the same as that brewed from the shiny copper vats of the industrial breweries. Amayi Ngulube as uneducated as she is has mastered a very complex scientific process, of course her understanding of the processes involved might be questionable but is this not science engagement?
This brings me onto the whole ARVs kachasu debacle – someone in their drunken wisdom to the chagrin of Dr. Mary Shawa, the Principal Secretary for Nutrition and HIV/AIDS for the Malawian Health Ministry, figured out that adding ARVs during the fermentation stage can hasten up the process. Various statements have been released by the government, civil society, and NGOs calling for the arrest of involved individuals. They report that this new fangled concoction can endanger people lives particularly those who end up consuming ARVs when treatment is not required and can also breed resistant strains.
Without denying the stupidity, absurdness and immorality of the situation, allow me to indulge myself in the ingenuity of the chemistry, (and I would like to hear from chemists out there on how plausible the scenario is). Zione Enock, a local brewer reported in an exclusive interview with the Malawi News, that kachasu fermented by ARVs is stronger and matures quickly (in 24 hours) with less sugar being required so brewers benefit from a higher turnover. A recipe has even been formulated – one ARV tablet to one packet of sugar to produce eight liters of kachasu compared to four packets of sugar which only gives six liters of kachasu. Let us begin first by understanding the process of fermentation, the chemical compounds in ARVs and how and if at all they can increase the process.
During fermentation small organisms (yeast or bacteria) convert maize into alcohol releasing carbon dioxide gas as a byproduct. Several factors can affect this process temperature, salt concentration, pH, oxygen availability and nutrient availability. Aaron Sosola from the Pharmacy, Medicines and Poisons Board of Malawi speculated that the drugs in ARVs activate the enzymes for fermentation. However ARVs are made from mainly inhibitors – molecules that prevent the HIV viral enzymes from working therefore what chemical compound in the drug could be responsible for speeding up the rate of fermentation, any ideas? ARVs do also contain other inactive ingredients to produce the pill form are they the culprits?
Stories like these although shocking are fast becoming commonplace, a few years ago rumours were rife around Blantyre that embalming fluid was being used to preserve fish being sold at the market. While ARVs as a magical, quick problem solver has been implicated in depraved scams of farmers adding it to their feed to fatten up the chickens. At the heart of this corruption is scientific experimentation as someone had to hypothesize, design and conduct the experiment, and interpret the results so when it comes to science let us not overlook people like Amayi Ngulube who make their living based on scientific experiments.