By Tope Adeboboye
The commercial motorbike suddenly pulled over, and the passenger, a
young man obviously in his early 30s, called out to the woman in the
She emerged with two small bottles of Agbara Bitters, an alcoholic
beverage, and handed them to the man. He deposited one inside his
shirt pocket and gave the seller some money. He then opened the other
bottle, threw his head back and emptied the contents in three quick
gulps. Discarding the empty bottle, he gently nudged the rider, and
the bike took off again.
The balcony of the two-storey building where the reporter loitered at
Eleshin, a community along Ijede Road, Ikorodu, Lagos provided a
vantage view of the goings on downstairs. Right across the road is a
makeshift, nondescript kiosk housing assorted alcoholic beverages
popularly known as bitters. From when the kiosk opens shortly before
noon till late in the night, the address is a popular destination for
men of assorted ages and class. Everyone visits Madam Dora’s kiosk to
get whatever alcoholic bitters they desire.
And as they congregate mostly outside the kiosk, sitting on wooden
benches while consuming the drinks, the men engage in assorted
debates, mostly on football, entertainment and politics.
In Iwo, a sleepy town in Osun State, a small, roadside shop a few
metres from a private elementary school houses assorted low-grade
alcoholic beverages, mostly in small bottles. The young woman
operating the shop told the reporter she made great sales each day on
the various products. But by far the most preferred products, she
informed, were the alcoholic bitters.
“People buy everything, including the gin in miniature sachets,” she
asserted. “But the ones that most people really go for these days are
the bitters. Those are the ones that many people prefer. You can never
lose on them.”
As she spoke, two men strolled in and demanded two bottles of Swagga
Bitters, an alcoholic beverage in small, 100ml bottles. Each was sold
Bitters, bitters everywhere
Everywhere you go these days, what you see most people consuming are
the alcoholic bitters. It is like a scourge suddenly unleashed on the
land. In the bars, hotels and at social functions, everyone seems to
be quaffing bitters. They have become so popular that even respected
retailers of wines and spirits have added certain alcoholic bitters to
their stock. It’s like everyone wants some share in the lucrative
bitters market. In fact, from Lagos to Lokoja, from Abakaliki to
Abeokuta, it’s like a raging, bitter war of alcoholic bitters at every
shop and bar.
“My wife owns a big supermarket in an upscale area on the Island,” a
major insurance executive told the reporter. “She sold different
items, including assorted wines and spirits. Lately, she told me she
was contemplating adding alcoholic bitters to her stock. I was
shocked. But when she told me that most people now prefer the bitters
to all other spirits, I had to give my consent. Since she started
selling the bitters, she has been making huge sales. That is what is
reigning now. It’s the reign of bitters.”
Oladele Ajayi is a reporter with an online news platform. He concurred
that the highest selling alcoholic beverages in town these days are
“You find them everywhere you go,” he informed. “They are the kings of
all drinks. The fact that they are cheap, alcoholic and the belief
that they are very natural, having been made from herbs, leaves and
barks made many people to easily fall in love with them. The general
belief that they boost sexual performance is the basic reason many
people go for the bitters. And everyone wants a piece. That is why you
see so many variants of bitters everywhere you go.”
What are these “bitters?”
Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, described bitters as
“traditionally an alcoholic preparation flavoured with botanical
matter such that the end result is characterized by a bitter, sour, or
bittersweet flavour. Numerous longstanding brands of bitters were
originally developed as patent medicines, but are now sold as
digestifs and cocktail flavourings.”
Ingredients used in preparing bitters have, for long, consisted of
aromatic herbs, bark, roots, and fruits for their flavour and
medicinal properties. Some of the more common ingredients are
cascarilla cassia, gentian, orange peel and cinchona bark.
Most bitters contain water and alcohol. The alcohol in the bitters,
the reporter learnt, functions as a solvent for botanical extracts as
well as a preservative. The alcoholic strength of bitters varies
widely across different brands and styles.
Bitters have been in existence even from the time of the ancient
Egyptians, who were believed to have infused medicinal herbs in jars
of wine. In the middle ages, more concentrated herbal bitters and
tonic preparations were developed. Since then, different peoples and
civilisations have developed their own bitters. The Chinese, it is
believed, have been consuming bitters for over 5000 years.
A study conducted by some researchers from the Department of Clinical
Pharmacy and Pharmacy Administration, Faculty of Pharmacy, University
of Ibadan noted that bitters contain complex carbohydrates, alkaloids,
vitamins and minerals that have antioxidant, antiviral and
antispasmodic properties. The study noted that the ingredients work
together to reduce inflammation, control pain, relax muscles and
improve digestion and elimination. Bitters can also be effective as
appetite stimulants in some people, the study, conducted by Showande
S. J. and Amokeodo O.S, asserted. It was published in the October 2014
edition of Tropical Journal of Pharmaceutical Research. Side effects
of bitters include dizziness, loss of taste, nausea and vomiting, the
study also discovered.
Curiously, none of the bitters being sold in the country has admitted
to having any negative side effects.
In the beginning
But Nigeria hasn’t always been a nation of “bitters.” Until the past
decade, Nigerians’ incredible, suddenly discovered passion for
alcoholic bitters would have confounded many a soothsayer. In fact, in
those days, there was nothing like alcoholic bitters. Indeed, there
were some very bitter drinks known as ‘bitters,’ but not a single drop
of alcohol was added to such drinks. Prominent among such drinks was
the Swedish Bitters, a herbal tonic whose promoters claim could cure a
number of ailments. It was an imported brand that was very popular in
its days, with many local manufacturers producing their own brands of
the Swedish Bitters.
Soon, some Nigerian companies decided to make their own brands. Yoyo
Bitters, produced by Abllat Company Nigeria Limited in Lagos, became
the most successful of such brands. Yoyo Bitters is also devoid of
Before the bitters
But even before the days of Swedish Bitters, Yoyo Bitters and others,
many men and women across Nigeria have been patronising sellers of
herbs and roots. The agbo, herbs and water mixtures that served as
remedies for assorted ailments, have thrived for centuries.
There were also those, notably men, in love with herbs and roots
soaked in local gin, popularly known as ogogoro. In Lagos, for
instance, sellers of such locally made mixtures often sit at motor
parks, bus stops or just by the roadside, with people, mostly men,
coming from far and near to patronise them. The agbo jedi sellers have
different bottles and different names for each concoction. They claim
the mixtures can cure anything, from haemorrhoids to erectile
dysfunction, low libido, low sperm count and other uncomforting sexual
conditions. They are also believed to be strong aphrodisiacs.
Collectively known as paraga in street lingo, the mixtures, the
reporter learnt, have different names and different uses.
“There are basically four types that a regular paraga consumer would
mix to make a potent brew,” Ajayi, a retired motor park tout who now
drives a danfo buses, informed. “We have the jedi, opa eyin, aleko or
ale, and afato. The jedi is to cure your pile, while opa eyin is good
for the back. It will straighten your spinal cord and cure your
backache. Ale is to strengthen the manhood, while afato cures low
sperm count. The herbs are usually soaked in local gin or schnapps,
but most sellers prefer ogogoro, the local gin because it’s cheaper.”
Back in the days in most parts of Lagos, it was not uncommon to see
people congregating by the stands of paraga sellers in the evenings.
Fuji artiste, Abass Akande Obesere, in the late 1990s, did a song
hailing the efficacy of paraga. In the song, he informed everyone of
how he could go as many as eight rounds of sex without experiencing
the slightest hint of lethargy after consuming a generous dose of
Enter the bitters
The reporter learnt that the Ghanaian company, Kasapreko, introduced
the Alomo Bitters into the Nigerian Market around 2007. Described as a
very bitter drink with 42 per cent alcoholic content, the drink’s
manufacturers and marketers embarked on an aggressive campaign,
promoting the beverage as capable of boosting mental and physical
alertness, indigestion, weight loss, youthfulness, vigour and
strength. In no time, it became the most popular drink in many parts
of the country. Most of the consumers saw it as an aphrodisiac, and
they consumed bottles upon bottles in incredible quantities.
In no time, small bottles of adulterated Alomo Bitters started
flooding the market, causing unmitigated loss for the producers.
A land flowing with bitters
Following the success of Alomo Bitters, many Nigerian manufacturers
quickly jumped on the bandwagon and started producing their own
bitters. From the very suggestive names of the drinks, the reason for
the products couldn’t be too hard to understand.
The first company to join the list was Yemkem International Centre for
Alternative Therapy, Lagos. Its product was called Osomo Bitters.
Soon, adulterated versions of Osomo Bitters also flooded the market.
And then, many other products came in quick succession, flooding the
Nigerian space with assorted, low-grade products with extremely
suggestive and funny-sounding names.
“When Alomo Bitters came, many Yoruba speakers interpreted it to mean
something like ‘User of girls’. Of course, if Alomo meant ‘user of
girls,’ Osomo could also be interpreted to mean ‘Doer of girls.’ And
so, manufacturers of all other products thereafter started giving
suggestive names to their drinks. That is why you have names like
Kerewa (a slang for copulation), Kondo (cudgel), Dadubule (lay her
down), Wafekulaleyi (You’ll nearly die tonight) and so on,” Oladele
Ajayi, the reporter, intoned.
Today, wherever you go in Nigeria, alcoholic bitters exist in their
numbers. Some of the common ones include Alomo Bitters, Osomo Bitters,
Kerewa Bitters, Orijin Bitters, Baby Oku Bitters, Kogbebe Bitters,
Ibile Bitters, Durosoke Bitters, Dadubule Bitters, Agbara Bitters,
Action Bitters, Shapiro Bitters, Koboko Bitters, Ogidiga Bitters, Pasa
Bitters, Wafekulaleyi Bitters, Dorobuchi Bitters, Gidigba Bitters,
Pakurumo Bitters, Muscle Bitters, Power Bitters, Charger Bitters,
Awilo Bitters, Swagger Bitters, Agya Appiah Bitters, Erujeje Bitters,
Goko Bitters, Edges Bitters, Jedi-Jedi Bitters, Opa Eyin Bitters,
Kokoma Bitters, Pankere Bitters, and many others. Besides Orijin and
Alomo, which come in bigger containers, virtually all others are in
100 millilitre bottles.
There are other drinks like Dogoyaro, which are locally prepared herbs
and roots soaked in local gin. Another drink called Monkey Tail is
also a concoction of herbs and roots as well as marijuana leaves
soaked in local gin.
Most of the drinks are in small plastic bottles, and are quite cheap.
The reporter was told that most sell for N100 per bottle. Only a few,
like Alomo, Osomo, Orijin and Action Bitters, sell for between 200 and
500 a bottle, depending on the location.
Determined to have their own share of the market, some major brands
also joined the bitters’ fray. Guinness, for instance, launched the
Orijin Bitters, while International Distillers Limited came out with
the Action Bitters. Nigerian Breweries has already launched Ace Roots,
but consumers say it is more of lager flavoured with herbs and roots
than the conventional bitters.
In spite of the claims by manufacturers of these bitters, the reporter
learnt that the major ingredients in many of the products are mainly
ethanol and caffeine. It is believed that some quantity of marijuana
might be included in the preparation of some. A dark, extremely bitter
substance mainly found in the northern part of the country is also
used by some of the producers of the bitters, it was gathered.
Why we love our bitters
At a kiosk off Old Ojo Road in Mazamaza, Amuwo Odofin, Lagos, young
and middle-aged men hold sessions at least three times a day. All that
the woman sells are bitters of assorted types as well as
locally-prepared Dogoyaro mixture. At all times, the men are found
quaffing the drinks and smoking cigarettes.
Asked why he consumes bitters, Chinedu (not real names) explained:
“They help me a lot by making me strong and energetic. For instance,
after drinking a bottle, I don’t experience indigestion. These days, I
no longer experience pile. I’m very fit as a man, you know what I
mean? And they are very cheap. These are my reasons for drinking
Mr. Mike, who operates a mini-bus between Mazamaa and Satellite Town,
also told the reporter why he’s a regular consumer of bitters.
“It is very good for men, but it is even better for those of us that
sit all day behind the wheel,” he told the reporter. “It’s better than
drinking all these local herbs that are produced in dirty
environments. These ones are made by companies, and they have NAFDAC
numbers. You know the government must have been satisfied that they
are safe for public consumption before they are certified by NAFDAC.
So, there is no cause for alarm.”
Lanrewaju Solomon (not real names), a journalist, said the advent of
bitters and other herbal drinks in the Nigerian market has saved a lot
of marriages from untimely collapse.
“Let’s be sincere to ourselves, these drinks called bitters are saving
marriages and building homes,” he submitted. “Due to the foods we
consume, the environmental hazards that we face, and the stress that
most urban dwellers experience everyday, the sexual life of many men
have become virtually dead. These alcoholic bitters are doing a lot in
saving homes by giving new life to many men. That’s the truth. No
woman wants a man that is weak and powerless when it comes to bedroom
affairs. And these bitters give strength and vitality. They serve as
aphrodisiacs. I will only advise that people consume them moderately,
because of their high alcohol content.”
Salasi Michael, a Ghanaian, said only death would separate him from
drinking alcoholic bitters.
There is hardly any of those brands that I have not taken. Any new one
that is launched, the shops I buy them from will quickly notify me.
Some are very good as libido boosters. Those are the ones I always
“When you drink it all the time, your body will somehow adjust to it.
I can’t drink and begin to misbehave,” he stated.
Opeyemi Akindele, a commercial motorbike operator at Iyana-Ipaja,
Lagos, was certain that God deliberately created the cheap bitters for
poor folks like him.
“It’s God’s way of making those of us that are poor to survive. There
are wines that are sold for as much as N10, 000 per bottle and those
rich men drink it everyday. Before they get drunk with that N10, 000
worth bottle of wine, I can also be okay with one or two bottle of
Action Bitters, Jedi Jedi or Waafekulaleyi Bitters worth just N200.”
Mr. Ibe operates a betting centre at Ogida area in Benin City. He said
he could never start his day without some bitters.
“During the time of our forefathers, it was those bitter things they
drank that made them last long. My great-grandfather lived more than
100 years before he died. He was in the village and hardly visited the
hospital because he didn’t fall sick. During their time, they prepared
theirs by themselves.
“Some people just condemn theses drinks because they are cheap and
most of them are made in Nigeria. Very many of them are extracts from
herbs and roots of medicinal trees. There is a particular one I take
whenever I have stomach upset, and it is an instant cure for the
condition. But some people sit in their homes and condemn things that
they don’t even know about. Every morning, l take some to cleanse my
system and it has been working for me,” Ibe said.
And manufacturers smile to the banks
And of course, manufacturers of alcoholic bitters are smiling to the
banks. The consumers are hardly interested in the composition of the
drinks, neither are they interested in getting to know how healthy
they are. And their actions are making the producers very rich.
In 2014, a market survey put the annual value of the alcoholic bitters
market at a princely sum of N32 billion. Since then, the market has
grown even bigger. Many ‘manufacturers’ have sprung up, churning out
thousands of bottles of sundry bitters with grotesque names on a daily
Besides the producers, marketers of the products as well as retailers
are also making brisk sales, fetching themselves good money even in
this season of economic lull.
But it has been discovered that not all the bitters in the market are
healthy. Some have even been identified as killer bitters absolutely
unsafe for human consumption.
Last year, there were reports that some men died after drinking a
certain alcoholic bitters. The National Agency for Food and Drug
Administration and Control (NAFDAC) later announced that it was
mopping up the drink from the market after discovering that the
product, which was imported, had been adulterated.
Since then, many people have been expressing anxiety over the herbal
drinks that have flooded the Nigerian market. Some are even insisting
that the regulatory agencies are not doing enough to prevent killer
drinks from causing unmitigated damage to the consumers.
Many consumers of bitters are also not concerned about the percentage
of the alcoholic content in the beverages. In fact, many of them
insist that alcoholic bitters are mere herbal medicines soaked in gin.
But many non-consumers are worried that the bitters are being consumed
with recklessness, without caution.
“Even if it’s medicine, isn’t it supposed to have prescribed doses?
Unfortunately, you’ll never find such dosage anywhere on the plastic
bottles. That is why you find everyone consuming bottles and bottles
of these drinks,” Chukwudi, a concerned Nigerian told the reporter.
Some have also blamed the regulatory agencies, notably NAFDAC and the
Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) for not doing enough to
curtail the activities of manufacturers of alcoholic bitters.
“Most of the bitters were registered by NAFDAC, which means they
passed the agency’s test. What that means is that a dose cannot kill
the consumer. But nobody tells you the effects that they would
eventually have on your liver. Also, nobody tells you about the
chronic toxicities associated with the prolonged use of the bitters,”
He also expressed worries that some manufacturers might be adding some
methanol to their bitters instead of ethanol.
And experts warn
A medical practitioner in Akure, Ondo State, Dr Oluwatosin Muraina,
told the news Agency of Nigeria that there was nothing advantageous in
the consumption of bitters, especially the alcoholic beverages. He
said the habit actually led to nutritional deficiencies.
According to Muraina, diseases that occur from intake of bitters
include fatty livers, liver cirrhosis and kidney failure.
“It, however, increases libido or sexual performance which are the
main reasons why some people take them. But it leads to more sexual
promiscuity and increases incidence of sexually transmitted diseases
and transmission of other diseases, such as hepatitis.
“Kidney failure is on the upward trend partly due to increased
consumption of these toxic drinks.
“There is also an increase in the number of patients at the
orthopaedic wards due to accidents by commercial motorcyclists who
drink bitters with attendant overburdening of the health facilities,”
Mr. Damian Izuka, a community pharmacist and Fellow, Nigerian
Pharmaceutical Society isn’t too comfortable with the proliferation of
bitters in the Nigerian market. In an interview with Daily Sun, Izuka
bared his mind.
Hear him: “The bitters, from my perspective, is more of fiction than
reality. In the first place, whatever is bitter is unfriendly. The
taste is harsh. It is acidic. I am sure that if you pass it to the
average child, he won’t like the taste. But suddenly, people started
having this impression that when they take bitters, all their problems
He admitted, though, that some bitters might be beneficial to the
body. He described bitters as a combination of herbs, alcohol and
sugar. “These can be combined in different ways if manufactured by a
reputable company. It will ensure that alcohol, herbs and sugar are
well balanced. But what I found out is that some of them contain much
more sugar and alcohol and unknown herbs. And I don’t think that a
healthy drink meant for a wide spectrum of people should contain up to
40 to 60 per cent of alcohol.”
He said the overconsumption of ethanol and sugar might not be too good
for the body. He explained that even though some of the bitters might
be good, others might not be as beneficial as being promoted.
“I am worried over the presence of very unhealthy bitters in the
market. As a stakeholder, I would say that this development is
unhealthy. It has social and economic consequences. In places where
this thing is overindulged in, the consequences are much. Deaths have
occurred as a result of people trying to prove a point by finishing as
much quantity as possible, and at the end of the day, got their
systems choked. There is no way overindulgence in this things might
not have serious health consequences.”
He said the regulatory bodies might be doing their level best to
curtail the proliferation of the bitters, but he insisted that their
best was just not enough.
“When you go around Lagos, you will see thousands of people selling
these bitters in bowls. You see more than 15 to 20 variants. I don’t
want to believe that the authorities approved of all those products.
But you can trust our people; they can be very smart. Once A and B
have been approved, they can go on to clone them and make some money.
At the end of the day, people buy poison rather than bitters. These
are my fears.”
Life goes on
But many consumers of alcoholic bitters are hardly bothered by such
fears. Lati Eleran, a butcher at the Odo Eran Abattoir in Ikorodu,
Lagos is one of such.
“These bitters are very medicinal,” he intoned, dismissing suggestions
that some might be injurious to health. “It’s like taking agbo (a
local herbal mixture). These orthodox doctors will tell you that
bitters are bad, but I don’t listen to them. I’m assuring you that
they work wonders in my system. I don’t know about you, but alcoholic
bitters are good for me.”