It is Uganda’s best-known and culturally-cherished banana beer. It, however, stayed relegated to a certain class of society, thanks to its mode of brewing – by stomping on the bananas mixed with spear grass using, sometimes jigger-infested, feet.
Yet it refuses to go away. In fact, it has of late elbowed its way into urban life, with youths seen swigging it from traditional gourds during football matches and music concerts. We are talking about tonto, also known as mwenge-bigere (feet beer) for obvious reasons.
When you talk about tonto today, what comes to mind are the images of an unhygienic drink served out of dirty jerry cans at village funerals and weddings images that have made many abandon the drink of our forefathers for the more sophisticated beers and spirits. The good news, however, is that tonto is now packed in bottles just like factory beers, and is now available in supermarkets and bars, thanks to Jakana Fruits Limited in Kawempe.
Dan Jakana, the proprietor of Jakana Fruits, says he has had the idea of doing a hygienic, pasteurized version of tonto for many years. His dream came to pass last year when Jakana met Meg Jaquay, an American manufacturing engineer, whom he recruited as the factory’s general manager.
Jaquay secured funding from an investor who believed that bringing a traditional beer into the marketplace was not only a good business idea but also had cultural aantages in supporting a local drink get to the supermarket shelves.
“We brought in some women from the village to teach our girls how to roast sorghum properly, because it is very important that you get the right texture that meets what the customer is used to,” Jaquay says.
This resulted in the birth of “Mutaka Tonto”, as it is called a modern version of a centuries-old tradition of the Bantu people of sub-Saharan Africa.
Tonto without the feet:
In the villages, tonto is made by ripening bananas in a pit for several days. The bananas are then thrown into a wooden trough with spear grass, and squeezed using the feet to extract juice. The juice is filtered and diluted before it is mixed with roasted sorghum. This mixture is fermented for two to four days, producing a potent brew.
“We have created it [Mutaka] in a traditional way, except we eliminate one step: we don’t use our feet because we have the machinery to make the banana juice,” Jaquay says.
“We believe by creating a pasteurized hygienic version of tonto, we are keeping a tradition that we don’t want to be lost. It is very easy for traditions to be lost, especially when we have new generations growing up in [the] cities. We are passing on the tradition but in a more hygienic way.”
The making of Mutaka started in July last year, and according to Jaquay, the reception has been good, with its distribution spreading all the way to Gulu, Bundibugyo and Jinja. In Kampala, you can find Mutaka in Uchumi, Capital Shoppers and medium-size supermarkets such as Super Super in Bukoto, petrol stations and several bars.
The beer packaged in a gourd-like bottle to give it the traditional appeal, comes in 500ml at Shs 3,000 and Shs 3,500, depending on where you buy it. Mutaka is quite g in alcoholic content, with two flavours – sweet (5.5 per cent) and dry (7 per cent).
“We are targeting people in their mid-twenties and above a market that knows the product from jjajja [grandparents] in the village, and want to continue having that memory of the village. It is good for celebrations like introductions, because it is hygienic,” Jaquay says.
“I have met a lot of Ugandans who have never tasted tonto because they didn’t like how it was produced they don’t think it is hygienic for them to drink.”
Mutaka carries the same, good old taste from back in the day.
The bananas are provided by a group of farmers in Nakaseke organized under Kayinja banana farmers’ association. The banana varieties used include: kisubi, ndiizi, musa, kivuuvu, kabula and mbidde. According to Jakana, the factory uses 12 tons of bananas every week, although it has a capacity of five tons daily.
However, not all the tons go into making tonto. The majority of the bananas are used to make banana juice (omubisi) another traditional drink in Buganda and beyond, which is the flagship product for Jakana Fruits.
Birth of a dream:
Jakana Fruits Limited started in 1994 when Jakana, who was on kyeyo in the USA, decided to return home. He started making banana juice in his house and sharing it with friends – before later asking them to buy it.
Jakana worked at Joka Cafeteria Incorporated, a food-processing factory in Houston, Texas, which gave him enough encouragement to study agricultural business in Uganda as a thesis for his master’s degree in international business, which he attained from the USA in 1994.
His move to return home was catalyzed by President Museveni’s visit to Dallas, Texas in 1994 to lure investors to Uganda. And when Museveni talked about the opportunity in making banana juice, it was like preaching to the converted. Jakana could no longer wait to return to Uganda and start his own juice making factory.
“I started in a small way with a blender and charcoal stove for boiling water. That would get me at least two or three cases a day. I then bottled ten crates, using the packaging materials I bought from the States,” Jakana recalls.
His first client was Bon Appetit takeaway on Dewinton road, who have remained his clients to-date.
“There is a big market for juice in Uganda but surprisingly most of the juice is imported, yet we have many fruits here,” Jakana says.
“Mubisi is a sweet drink that didn’t have a shelf life. If we can ensure shelf life for our agricultural products, then all these farmers will have market. If you sample the Africans south of the equator, whether in Malawi and Zambia, [everyone] has a banana tree in their backyard. So, the market is enormous.”
Currently, Jakana Fruits Limited makes five different types of juices: passionbanana, mango, pineapple, orange and tropical punch (a cocktail of all the fruits). The factory also produces cookies, banana wine and dried fruits, which already have market in the USA.
Source : The Observer