After a while in Ethiopia, you’ll notice khat is everywhere. At first you might spot the teenager boys along the roads, holding plastic bags filled with green leaves, hoping that the minibus, car or truck drivers will stop and do business with them. Then you learn how to spot the khat dealers in town. They come to Bahir Dar on their fancy motor cycles, sporting their fancy sunglasses, every morning around 8-8:30, to carefully selected collection centers, where they load their vehicles with freshly harvested khat and rush off to Gonder and other more northern places, maybe even towards the border of Djibouti. Or you may learn how to identify the khat plantations on the country side – how the evergreen leaves shimmer in the hot Abyssinian sun, how the manual water wells are situated close to the plants, ready to satisfy the greedy thirst of this shrub, knowing of the fact that it takes 500 litres of water to produce one bag of chat. And you notice the young men – they always seem to be men – lazily, idly chewing khat leaves in towns. Or you might pay attention to the guy who is no longer in the best levels of his consciousness, walking around naked on the streets and word going around: he’s chewed too much.
Khat is everywhere.
What I’ve described to you is a well functioning business model, only it happens to revolve around a plant that is classified as an illegal drug in many corners of the world.
Here in Ethiopia, though, khat (Catha edulis) has been chewed for thousands and thousands of years. It is a native plant to the Horn of Africa and Ethiopia is one of its main producers. The plant has many nick names in the region, including: qat, qaad, ghat, Abyssinian tea, Somali tea, Arabian tea, and it is estimated to be consumed by over 20 million people daily, mostly in the Arabian peninsula and East Africa. Khat fills the mouths of men during parties or social gatherings, while smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. It finds it ways to farmers and other workers, such as drivers in Ethiopia, to reduce fatigue and hunger during long days.
What’s the perk? The plant hosts a monoamine alkaloid called cathinone. This chemical compound is similar to ephedrine and mathcathinone, both of which are amphetamines. Khat is said to cause excitement, loss of appetite and euphoria. It works a bit like a strong cup of coffee. Keeps you going. The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified khat as a drug of abuse, listing possible adverse long-term effects of its use, including malnutrition, psychotic reactions, depression, irritation in the upper gastro-intestinal tract, cardiovascular disorders, impaired male sexual function…
Despite these warnings, khat business is blooming. It is legal to sell the plant in Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia and Yemen. Recently, better roads and transportation have enabled exporting of the plant from Ethiopia to neighboring countries. It is a sensitive business, though. In order for khat to have its desired effects, the leaves should be chewed fresh. When leaves are fresh, the cathinone concentration is high. When leaves aren’t fresh, the cathinone breaks down into cathine which doesn’t have similar stimulating effects on humans.
The reaction of locals towards khat consumption are ambivalent. Some judge it harshly, saying that it destroys lives, especially the concentration of youth. Some say that it is a bad Muslim habit. Some say that the adverse effects of khat are increasing because nowadays the bushes are sprayed with chemical pesticides. But for farmers, it is a cash crop, a bank. Cash crops are grown for simple reasons: they have a buyer and (usually) an attractive price. I don’t blame the farmers for wanting to grow this crop. It is a relatively easy process and it brings home money. As for the Ethiopian government, khat is an important export crop and a source for foreign currency, just like coffee and oilseeds. For a country that wants to reach middle-income status by 2025, all eyes are on foreign currency.
Meanwhile, the debate whether khat is just like coffee or just like cocaine continues. But business got to keep on rolling.
Close up photo of leaves by Alan, Flickr creative commons here