The Diffusion of Heroin in Eastern and Southern Africa

This research report “A Shallow Flood: The Diffusion of Heroin in Eastern and Southern Africa(click hyperlink to access report) draws from and analyzes field data examining three characteristics of the illicit drug economy in a selected number of countries of eastern and southern Africa:

  • Price. This part of the data identifies the retail price (i.e. street price) for heroin in a given market location, and examines factors that influence retail price variations within a particular market, and between markets.
  • Distribution system. Identifying the means by which heroin is moved between wholesale and retail vending situations, and how it is moved within and between adjacent and/or distant markets.
  • Market structure. Identifying core structural components of domestic heroin markets in the region, with particular attention to those features that enable markets to emerge and flourish, as well as factors that disrupt or deteriorate these markets.

The flow of heroin from Asian production points to the coastal shores of eastern and southern Africa is not new. Whereas the first heroin transit routes in the region in the 1970s relied heavily on maritime transport to enter the continent, a number of transport modes and urban centres of the interior have increasingly become important features in the current movement of heroin in this region. Interior transit hubs and networks have developed around air transport nodes that use regular regional and international connections to ship heroin. As regional air routes proliferated and became more efficient, their utility and value for the heroin trade increased as well. Heroin is also consolidated and shipped over a frequently shifting network of overland routes, moving it deeper into the African interior in a south-westerly direction across the continent.

Consequently, a shallow flood of heroin has gradually seeped across the region, and this has had a significant impact on the many secondary towns found along the continent’s transcontinental road networks. These places, in turn, have spawned their own small local heroin markets, and become waypoints in rendering sustainable the now chronic, metered progression of heroin’s resolute geographic diffusion across the region.

The impact of this creeping spread of heroin on regional state development has been significant and, paradoxically, symbiotic. The emerging illicit African drug market environments may represent credible threats to the development and security of the region’s nascent independent state institutions and structures. At the same time, these markets have also presented new and considerable sources of economic livelihood and opportunity for the continent’s ever-expanding population of poor, disenfranchised and vulnerable people. A surrogate ‘drug working class’ has emerged as a socio-economic sequela to more traditional, yet increasingly limited, licit income opportunities.

The purpose of this report is to examine the diffusion of heroin across eastern and southern Africa. This will be achieved through an analysis of retail heroin prices, distribution systems and domestic marketplaces. The report provides an analytical summary of heroin market data collected across the countries of the region, with specific retail price points, commentary on domestic heroin distribution systems and structures, and a discussion of the common structural characteristics evident across the region that enable, embed and sustain these heroin markets.

Source: Authored by Jason Eligh, Global Initiative against Transnational and Organised Crime, 28 May 2020