It is estimated that 90% of Somaliland’s adult male population – and about 20% of women – chew khat for mirqaan, the Somali word for the buzz it can give. In 2014, khat sales generated 20 per cent of the government’s $152m budget, according to the Somaliland Ministry of Finance. It is the biggest employer in Hargeisa, the capital, generating between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs. In a country where about 75 per cent of the workforce is jobless, khat is a pillar of the economy.
Such is khat’s hold in the Horn of Africa that any questions about the feasibility of a ban provoke talk of revolution – and it is not always clear if that is meant in jest. Either way, on a hot afternoon in the Somaliland capital, you will not find much khat-related dissent.
“It brings people together, it facilitates discussion of issues and the exchange of information,” says local journalist Abdul, chewing away. “In the West it is often difficult for people to interact, but here [through khat-chewing] they learn about their neighbours and what problems they have.”
Meanwhile, for Ethiopia khat is a major earner. Somaliland spends about $524m a year – about 30% of GDP – importing Ethiopian khat. Many suspect the true figure to be much higher.
But Ethiopia’s biggest and most lucrative external market for khat is Djibouti. With foreign currency in short supply these days, khat has become a valuable government revenue source.
When khat was banned in the UK and other European countries, tax on Ethiopia’s domestic khat market was increased to partly compensate for the loss in revenue. It was from Djibouti’s shores, some contend, that dhows loaded with Ethiopian khat set out for Yemen 500 years ago, where it now grows in abundance with an economic, social and cultural impact that arguably surpasses any other country.
In Yemen there is not a single entity that supervises the khat market, though it generates anywhere from $10m a day to around $45m. The latter estimate is given weight by government documents that indicate unofficial tax from khat amounts to about $4.5m a day, says Wael Al Hamdani, a Yemeni diplomat.
Khat is Yemen’s main agricultural product. One in six people – about 5-6 million Yemenis – are wholly dependent on its trade. When it was suggested to import khat from Ethiopia to save Yemen’s scarce water resources, farmers rejected the idea outright.
Much of Ethiopia’s prime khat grows in the hills around the prominent eastern Ethiopian cities of Dire Dawa and Harar, about 150km from the border with Somaliland.
Between these two cities is the city of Aweday, which, despite its smaller stature, is in fact the hub of Ethiopia’s khat trade – hence its nickname: khat city.
The morning after the nightly trade and dispatch of bundles of khat, every street beside its main road appears covered in discarded green leaves.
Meanwhile, trucks loaded with khat are hurtling eastward along rough roads through the Ethiopian lowlands, and planes with identical cargo are threading through azure skies, to make their deliveries in Djibouti, Somaliland and beyond.
There are three types of khat: low, medium and high quality. Lower quality khat costs about $12/kilo in Hargeisa, rising to $26 for medium quality and $58 for high quality. The majority of customers typically spend between $2 and $10 for a day’s worth of khat that throughout Somaliland amounts to a national daily spend of $1.18m, and from which the government gets its important tax cut.
In Saudi Arabia, due to the ban, some are willing to spend up to $100 a day to maintain a preference for khat. What is not sent off by truck or plane to neighbouring countries and farther afield finds an eager Ethiopian customer base in the likes of Dire Dawa’s Chattara Market, where amid passionate haggling, khat sellers fit the trend across the Horn region of predominantly being women.
In Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian government has prevaricated over how exactly to legislate khat (although taxation of khat is far more clearly established than elsewhere in the region, with tax checkpoints dotting the roads around khat-growing eastern Ethiopia).
It is perfectly legal to buy khat and chew with friends in your home or elsewhere, but it’s illegal to gather with others in a khat house for a communal chew combined with smoking shisha. However, one afternoon as I was shown to an allotted seat on one of a number of mattresses encircling the floor of a room filled with slowly shifting vapours to talk to those chewing khat and smoking shishas, I was reassured the Addis Ababa police virtually never bother to enforce the rule.
But others are less willing to give khat any benefit of the doubt.
“The problem comes down to the man not being part of the family and the woman being left to do everything,” says Fatima Saeed, a political advisor to the opposition Wadani Party, who previously worked for 15 years with the UN. “Men sit for hours chewing – it’s very addictive.”
She highlighted other potential consequences for those chewing: “It can bring about hallucinations, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, deaden sexual urges, while in others it increases them.”
Others point out the flipside of the supposed economic windfall. “Khat is a massive burden on Somaliland’s fragile economy since it means that a large percentage of its foreign currency is used to purchase khat,” says veteran rights campaigner, Rakiya Omaar of Horizon Institute, a consultancy firm that works on strengthening the capacity and self-reliance of institutions in Somaliland.
Another problem stems from the fact that for khat to have the desired stimulating effect, it must be chewed continuously for hours.
“We need to develop this country, and for that you should be working eight hours a day, but that’s not happening here,” says Omaar, a British Somalilander who returned to Hargeisa to take advantage of perceived business opportunities in the emerging economy.
She explains how many employees work half a day and then head off for an afternoon of khat.
Hargeisa is certainly a less rambunctious city come afternoon, and while Somalilanders are amazingly proactive in responding to appointment requests, trying to fix an afternoon meeting does not tend to prove successful.
While Hargeisa’s bustling commercial scene appears to survive the all-pervading khat habit, the coastal town of Berbera, 150km north on the Somaliland coast, turns it into a ghost town during the afternoon khat lull.
Despite a relatively busy small modern port operating on its outskirts, in the old town centre buildings are crumbling, its economy flatlining.
Such scenes lend weight to those arguing that more important than any energising effects khat might have is the way it dulls senses afterwards, as well as typically leading to dependency at the detriment of gainful employment.
Unemployed Somalilanders are not deterred from their khat habit that can cost up to $300 a month, as they while away jobless hours, borrowing money from friends, relatively easy to do due to the Somali cultural norm of sharing wealth.
Saeed supported the 2014 khat ban implemented in the UK, she says, due to the negative impact khat was having on the Somali diaspora community there.
“Khat would arrive at 5 p.m. on the plane and by 6 p.m. men had left homes and wouldn’t return until 6 a.m.,” Saeed says. “After the ban it was like people woke up from a deep sleep – they started looking for jobs, being part of the family.”
But in the political context of Somaliland remaining an unrecognised country, cut off from global financial systems and investment, khat provides an obvious viable and sustainable commercial opportunity.
Take that away and Somaliland’s economy might face even more strain. But perhaps even more significant than the economic aspect is the psychological dimension.
Regulation of cross-border imports from Ethiopia would help temper present problems, Saeed says, as would implementing an age limit – currently there is not one.
But, she adds, the present government won’t take any action due to the amounts of money and vested interests involved.
Others continue to defend khat, arguing it plays an important communal role. Well before the UK ban, the London Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence issued a factsheet stating: “In cultures where its use is indigenous, khat has traditionally been used socially, much like coffee in Western culture.”
But both those in favour of khat and those against it might well be united in agreeing that such an analogy rather underplays the reality of khat’s role and impact. And as is often the case with what to do about ingested substances, it seems to come down to deciding where to draw the line.
Which, considering how borders of countries in the Horn and the rest of Africa were drawn up, does not tend to result in a straightforward fix.
“I chewed khat for 30 years but now I’ve had enough,” says one Yemeni man in an Addis Ababa mafraj (a khat meeting house), smoking cigarettes but not chewing.
“I don’t miss it.”