Ethiopia has no clear policy guideline governing a green leaf that not only sustains millions of its farmers throughout the country but also boost its economy
An evergreen shrub cultivated for its leaves and is chewed by young and old Ethiopians alike for its euphoric effect, Khat normally grows in a wide range of agro-ecological zones anywhere between 1,500 and 2,700 meters above sea level.
Ethiopia is widely believed to be the origin as well as the largest producer of the plant in the world, which is common in Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. But as its trade and consumptions penetrate deep into Western Europe and North America the story of Khat is no longer confined to the land of its origin.
Around the rural Harerghe areas in Eastern Ethiopia, where its consumption is believed to have initially come from, Khat has a tremendous cultural and traditional value. Besides the role it plays in traditional rites such as during marriage proposals, reconciliation processes and other social gatherings, it is used by farmers as an energizer in their wearisome daily tasks. In the observance of religious activities, like all night prayer sessions during the Holy month of Ramadan, large numbers of devotees consume the green stimuli to stay wide awake through the night.
But gone are days when the use of Khat was limited to such events. Recent trends indicate a shift from traditional rituals to the consumption of large quantities of Khat for recreational purposes, reaching across large numbers of Ethiopians. Men and women belonging to various socio-economic groups throughout the country have habituated chewing the leaves, transcending regional confines and ethnic or religious boundaries. This creates a strong demand for the produce, elevating the commercial value of plant to a level of cash crop.
As Gessesse Dessie in his 2013 paper ‘Favoring a Demonized Plant: Khat and Ethiopian Smallholder Enterprises’ explains, over the past century, “khat has emerged from being an obscure crop with limited commercial value to an export [commodity] earning hundreds of millions of dollars.” At a farm level, income from Khat, “surpasses all major agricultural crops by several margins: it is 14.5 times more than for grain/cereals; 17 for pulses; six for oilseeds; and four for coffee.”
According to data obtained from the National Bank of Ethiopia (NBE), in 2012/13 fiscal year, with 9 % share, Khat was proven to be the fourth leading export item following coffee (24 %), gold (19 %) and oil seeds (14 %), earning the country US$271.5 million. The income is also important at regional and district levels; in the decade between 1999 and 2009, for instance, the Guraghe Zone Finance Bureau in the southern part of Ethiopia reported annual tax revenue from Khat averaging more than 13.5 million ETB.
Currently almost all regions in the country are succumbing to the practice of cultivating the plant. The Central Statistics Authority (CSA) in 2010 put the amount of land covered by Khat farms as exceeding 160 000 hectare. More than two million farmers are engaged in farming it, most of whom are smallholder farmers working on an average of less than one tenth of a hectare.
Millions of farmers, distributors and retailers throughout the country derive their income from the production and/or sale of the green stimuli. Its production process involves a multitude of actors in direct (transaction, sorting, packing, transporting), indirect (several forms of small trading ventures that benefit from the production and marketing) and derivative activities which are production processes set in motion by the consumption of khat, such as production of groundnuts, bottled water and cigarettes, ingredients consumed with the leaf.
The trade appears to follow a similar pattern from farm gate in rural areas to consumers in urban areas. In general, there are five nodes in the spatial flow of trade – namely farms, road junctions, village markets (collection hubs), central markets and transport centers. At each node, two types of sale occur: retail for local consumers located close to trading places and wholesale, to be transported to consumers elsewhere. Spatial flows of khat traded for export are slightly different as the companies that collect the produce from villages carry the product all the way to the export centers.
As the distance from farm increases, each node displays changes; the volume of khat increases, the means of transport change and the number of people permanently or semi-permanently employed grows.
But for all the benefit it is providing in economic and employment terms, the spreading of its production and its consumption has always been embroiled in controversy.
As khat cultivation is surging among farmers in all sides of the country the risks involved in abandoning food and cash crop production is notable. In most cash crop driven agricultural areas, farmers tend to become dangerously complacent about the relative reliability of their income season after season.
Khat has an advantage over other crops for it offers a high income per small land area ratio, giving farmers an opportunity to overcome constraints posed by small landholdings. But this does not necessarily mean the plant takes over land on which other crops were produced, argues Gessesse. The tendency to intercrop khat and other crops indicates farmers’ strategy to simultaneously produce for food and for cash. Additionally khat, unlike sugarcane, is not strictly a single crop, and unlike coffee doesn’t necessitate the presence of shade trees. As a result it can selectively be combined with other crops which in turn encourages intercropping among the farmers.
From the consumers’ point of view a growing number of people, particularly the youth, in urban and semi urban centers are falling prey to the habit of sitting for long hours of recreational chewing, inciting, as many fret, indolence; not to mention health and socio-economic side effects. This was an argument highlighted on a 2014 paper by Berhanu Megerssa et. al. entitled Socio-Economic Impact of Khat in Mana District, Jimma Zone, South Western Ethiopia. Owing to its stimulant and fatigue postponing effects, the use of Khat has performance enhancing qualities. But the habit of its consumption “has led to decreased work hours and household’s economic production, malnutrition, diversion of money, absenteeism and unemployment,” argued Berhanu et.al.
Although the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (and most recently the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuses of Drugs – ACMD) say mortality related to the use of khat is negligible and the potential for dependence and abuse of it low, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) says its consumption has side effects including elevated blood pressure, dilated pupils, hyperthermia, arrhythmias, and increased respiration with after effects like lack of concentration, numbness and insomnia.
No clear State Policy
As the product is expanding its global outreach policy makers in the West are looking for ways on how to deal with it. This is manifested in the UK’s recent introduction of legislation classifying khat as class C drug. And under the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act, its possession is punishable by a maximum of two years in prison; and up to 14 years of prison for supply related offences.
Yet, in Ethiopia, despite Khat’s growing popularity, economic importance (and the social ills associated to it), the government seems to have no clear policy as of yet governing the distribution of the green stimuli other than collection of tax from it. The production and trade of it is neither encouraged nor prohibited.
But two factors explain why this should not be the case.
First, even though the plant is a source of substantial amount of income to the government, almost all the production is carried out by smallholding farmers, whose effort and potential to yield more is marred by a lack of support and improved services. Khat farmers are constrained by natural and man-made bottlenecks such as moisture, wetlands, slopes, disease, cultivation management, harvesting, theft and dysfunctional markets. It is on their own that they try to make the best possible outcomes out of these pitfalls. They are also forced to rely on traditional knowledge and practices.
Second, notwithstanding intermittent raids to close some of the khat chewing venues in cities and towns, there seems to be a lack of awareness among law makers as well as law enforcement officers with regard to excessive abuse of the plant. Owing to the absence of regulations, minors and younger students are equally exposed to the habit as are adults. This helps explain the unnecessary mushrooming of khat chewing venues around schools and higher institutions.
This indicates that the distribution and sale of a plant, which is not only one of the major export items but is also a chief source of income as a cash crop for numerous farming households, ought to have a clear policy guideline that governs it.