Banana Beer and other Fermented Foods in Africa

Blog updated 19 May 2014
Bananas from the Burundi highlands being brought down to Bujumbura and surrounding areas along Lake Tanganyika. The supply chain for banana beer and other small and microenterprises  incorporate a variety of smallholders and workers, such as this bike owner, all of whom operate their activities in the informal, private sector. 

Fermentation is one of the most important technologies used in pre-industrial societies to transform agricultural and wild products into highly edible and nutritional products.  The fermentation process is associated with a variety of attributes, some of the most important being the following:

  • Preservation:
  • Decreases spoilage
  • Decrease harmful attributes, including:
  • Decrease harmful bacteria
  • Procedures are locally learned and maintained
  • Easily made (i.e., low technology), but:
  • Requires special skills (that can be locally taught)
  • Enhances nutritional quality
  • Fermented foods can be key to survival in times of food insecurity
  • Locally fermented foods are generally cheap

Fermented foods – including locally brewed beer – are made throughout sub-Saharan Africa.  They are an important product both for ceremonial use as well as enjoyment and nutrition.  With regard to the beers, they can range from very little alcohol content to quite heady.  The brews drunk on a daily basis by the family are generally quite low in alcohol but are high in nutritional quality.

Banana beer is frequently on sale in rural markets and is an important micro-enterprise for women who run a brewing enterprise.  The goal is a refreshing drink during the heat of day – not a high alcohol item.  The seller is pouring beer into a gourd, which the customer will drink with a straw that is generally made from a local reed.  I took this photo at a local market in northern Burundi.

Batwa pygmies are the traditional clay pot producers in central Africa. Large clay pots are traditionally used for beer, though now they are being replaced by plastic. Source: Meyer, Les Barundis

Serving visitors banana beer upon their arrival, often in a subservient attitude, was an important part of welcoming guests.  Source: unknown.

Joint sipping of banana beer remains an important component of both engagements and marriages.

Father of the bride and of the groom during an engagement ceremony, in the nearby village.

Sipping banana beer with a straw at Christmas time in the nearby village.

Several students have recently written to me,  inquiring about suitable methods of working with fermented foods and drinks (in nonindustrialized situations) in order to enhance their quality.  So, here are a few tips and background information:

  • There are at least two types of producers and consumers – first, small enterprise processing and sales and second, large-scale and often urban-based processing and sales
  • Procedures associated with each type can be quite different
  • The most important interventions may not be increased sanitation, improved technology, or others that may appear to be of primary importance to us, thus–>
  • Need for careful assessment of local conditions before deciding on a course of action

There are a variety of organizations now working on improvement of fermentation techniques, both at micro and mid-levels.  Working in conjunction with an organization such as the ones below may be a better approach that working alone.

Here are several examples:

1. ASARECA * has been working with local partners to develop improved fermentation procedures at the micro level in Eastern and Central Africa,  based on sorghum and millet.  Their work is described here:  Processing and Utilization Technologies of Sorghum and Millets:


  • They can be applied at home and on an industrial scale e.g. brewing, food processing etc. (Burundi and Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania), animal feed (Kenya), food (Ethiopia and Sudan, Kenya and Tanzania) and it is possible to commercialise them.

Things that can be done differently

  • There is a strong need to link farmers, processors and consumers to facilitate trade
  • There is need to open up information access to strengthen utilization as food and application in industry and business

* Association for strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa (ASARECA)

  1. Work that is being undertaken in Burundi by ASARECA members is described in this article: Traditional fermented foods and beverages in Burundi:


Several traditional fermented foods and beverages are produced at the household level in Burundi. These include milk products (urubu, amateregua and amavuta), cereal and banana-based beverages (Urwarwa, Isongo, Impeke and Kanyanga) and cassava-based fermented foods (Ikivunde, Inyange, Imikembe and Ubswage).

Literature on Burundian fermented foods and beverages is non-existent. Therefore, the objective of this review is to document the methods by which these Burundian foods and beverages are produced and to devise scientific means to improve their quality and optimize their production methods.

AGFAX is a program in West Africa  that is helping small and medium entrepreneurs to improve their food enterprises.  Here is an example  for banana juice production:

Banana juice – a recipe for success


Mariam Asigri, a teacher from Kumasi, Ghana, used to make banana juice at Christmas time as a gift for friends and family. But her juice was so popular she decided to make it a business. Now the director of MASIG Natural Fruits Industries, she explains how the juice is made, and her marketing strategy.

Suggested introduction

What’s the secret of being a successful entrepreneur? Perhaps most important is to have the courage of your convictions. If you think you can make a product that will sell, well, you’ll never know till you try. Which is exactly what Mariam Asigri did, and now this teacher from Kumasi in Ghana is running a successful company: MASIG Natural Fruits Industries. And her leading product? Banana fruit juice…

What are problems and opportunities ?  Mrs. Asigri has this to say:


– A continuing problem is lack of funds. Bank interest rates are too high and it is difficult to obtain collateral for bank loans
– difficulty of finding support from NGOs and donors
– constraints with competition from imported (mainly from South Africa) products and from low-priced artificial soft drinks
– limited distribution network and lack of advertising.


However, Mariam attributes her success to hard work, support from family, strong links with Research Institutions and Universities and availability of fruits all year round.

Her future plans are:
– To acquire industrial machines
– Improve packaging to international standards
– Carry out a more aggressive advertising campaign
– Initiate links with international NGOs for financial support
– Expand manufacturing to other parts of Ghana, expand the distribution network.

Basing one’s work on findings of these or similar organizations – in addition to further assessments of producers and consumers in the area in which the activity is to take place – are key components for success.

Here are examples from Sudan on traditional fermented food production:

Fermented foods for survival in Sudan

About 60% of the fermented foods of Sudan are famine or survival foods. Many of the fermented foods have been developed in Western Sudan in the Kordofan and Darfur regions, which are traditional famine areas. The strong link between fermented foods and food shortages is revealed by the fact that when a family becomes rich a number of fermented foods are no longer prepared. The techniques used are very effective methods of food preservation.

The products can be preserved for years through the double action of fermentation itself (which produces anti-microbial acids) and sun-drying. Sudan is probably the hottest and driest country in Africa. Through the years women have made full use of this free solar energy. Shade temperatures in the summer reach 45-50oC and the hot sands outside the shade reach more than 70oC.

Dried and fermented foods together with the seeds and fruits that can be gathered from the wild have saved lives especially those of children in the past and in the present in times of shortage … During the 1983-85 famine, relief workers found that people had survived by producing specific traditional fermented food products, especially Kawal (Arthur, R.A.J., (1986), Tribal Recipe may help to Feed the World, London Press Service 060416, UK )

Bones and hides

A wide range of “waste” products are fermented to produce edible food products in Sudan. These includes bones, hides and locusts. Fresh bones are fermented into a variety of products. “Dodery” is produced by chopping bones into small pieces and placing them into fermenting vats. They are subsequently covered in water, left for three days, removed, crushed into a paste and mixed with the ash from burnt sorghum stalks. The mixture is returned to the fermenting vat for a further two to five days. The final product is rolled into balls and has a shelf like of up to two months.

Another product “Kaidu digla” is made from the vertebrae of the backbone. These are chopped into smaller pieces and then sun-dried. After drying they are pounded with stones; mixed with water and salt; moulded into balls and allowed to ferment (Dirar, H., (1992), Sudan’s Fermented Food Heritage, in “Applications of Biotechnology to Traditional Fermented Foods”, National Academy Press, USA)

Source: Fermented Fruits and Vegetables. A Global Perspective, by Mr. Mike Battcock and Dr. Sue Azam-Ali.  FAO-1998.

About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, Agriculture, Appropriate technology, Beer, Feasts, Fermentation, Food, Food Security, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Research & Development and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Banana Beer and other Fermented Foods in Africa

  1. Nick Deane says:

    I am researching to write a book on Medieval East/central Africa (c 1150 – 1250). I am sure they would have been brewing banana and other fermented alcohol beverages. Do you know if alcohol was available at that time, and if so what do you think they were drinking and how do you think they would have made it???


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  3. erinwrote says:

    Zrig is a drink from Timbuktu. Though not fermented, it’s known as “Tombouctou wine” !


    • dianabuja says:

      Thanks for the info! Have been ill since late Aug, and only now ploughing through 1000s of emails! What is your source – and-or link to Arabic. Thanks!


  4. Diane says:

    Hello Diana
    I’m again reprinting the old blog-post. new blog :).
    This time I’ve made a proper link.


  5. Pingback: Republic of Burundi «

  6. Diane says:

    Thank you so much for this – and for the pictures. When did people start making banana beer? Was it in colonial times or before?


    • dianabuja says:

      Diane- Thanks for the kind words! Banana beer probably was made for centuries – since the introduction of bananas to tropical Africa. And how that came about, is not clear – though there are several hypotheses. Your blog is lovelay and I’ll share it with my colleagues.


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  8. Pingback: Nibbles: CWR video, Super barley, Banana fermentation, Cerrado, Indian genebank sell-off farrago, Pistacia

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