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Growing demand for Kenya's khat

Bundles of khat, captured by the DEA in 2006 (US Drug Enforcement Agency )
Bundles of khat, captured by the DEA in 2006
US Drug Enforcement Agency

Traditionally used in the same way as coffee - to assist social gatherings, meetings and ceremonies such as weddings - the stimulant khat, like coffee, is widely believed to have originated from Ethiopia. And, just as coffee was criticised and even banned in parts of Africa during the 16th century, so the mildly narcotic khat has recently found itself at the centre of a moral debate. Islamic rulers in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, recently banned use of the drug. This led Kenya, Somalia's biggest supplier, to stop all flights to its neighbour, sparking street protests in Mogadishu, and triggering concern among khat growers and traders in Kenya, who saw exports drop by 40 per cent. Flights have now resumed, but exports to Somalia have not returned to business as usual.

In the US, khat is also illegal, classified as a Class 1 narcotic drug. In July 2006, the US Drug Enforcement Agency carried out Operation Somalia Express, targeting an international smuggling ring, which had imported more than 25 tons of khat, estimated to be worth over US$10 million. But khat's illegal status is contended. Marketing and planning strategist Kimathi Munjuri, from the organisation NYAMITA, which represents khat growers in Kenya, is convinced that the crop is destined to be an international product, "not just as a stimulant much milder than alcohol and tobacco, but also for inherent, cultural values."

An age-old tradition

Drying coffee beans. During the 16th century, coffee was banned in parts of Africa because of its stimulating effects  (WRENmedia)
Drying coffee beans. During the 16th century, coffee was banned in parts of Africa because of its stimulating effects

Also known in Kenya as miraa, khat (Catha edulis) is native to East Africa, and has been cultivated as a stimulant for centuries. Those who take khat in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsular chew the leaves and young twigs, a tradition which pre-dates the drinking of coffee. Less frequently, it is also dried and consumed as tea. And its use is no longer confined to Africa, with rapid, inexpensive air transport making the drug available to Somali expatriates in the US and Europe.

In Kenya, khat has semi-legal status, but this has not stopped farmers from cultivating the crop. In fact, khat cultivation is currently expanding into new areas, such as Embu and Nyeri, outside the traditional growing area of Meru, near Mount Kenya. For some years the falling price of coffee has led farmers to pull up their coffee bushes in despair. Many are now turning to khat, which is not only easier to grow, but can be harvested twice a year and brings in an income that is five times higher than coffee. The trade has greatly contributed to development in the district of Meru, and local farmers are calling for the status of khat to be formalised.

Taking the initiative

But khat is no ordinary crop, and whilst agricultural extension officers are prepared to turn a blind eye to khat cultivation, no record is kept of production or income earned and no advice is provided on growing the crop. Despite this lack of support, farmers have begun to adapt management techniques they have learnt for other crops, as revealed in a recent case study of farmer innovation by Geoffrey Kamau from the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI). Such techniques include budding, grafting and air layering - a system of vegetative propagation. "They have also used other techniques to control pests," says Kamau. "For example, to control the most serious pest, chafer grubs, they bury avocado fruit around the base of the khat plant to attract red ants which feed on the pest."

Khat brings traders into town so less trade in khat is bad news for others, like these vegetable traders (WRENmedia)
Khat brings traders into town so less trade in khat is bad news for others, like these vegetable traders

Consumer preferences have also influenced farming and marketing practice. Khat enthusiasts, who represent a growing local market, report that the leaves are best chewed fresh, within two days of picking, when the plant still contains high levels of cathinone, a natural chemical similar to amphetamines. Many farmers have learnt to avoid applying pesticides, or to apply them a number of days before the crop is harvested, because the taste is undesirable. "Their farming practices are in direct response to consumer demand," says Kamau, adding, "It is interesting to see that other crops are getting the back seat. Farmers are concentrating on khat, which is giving them an income that they are not getting from traditional cash crops."

Tough trade

Despite its status as a semi-legal crop, khat supports not only the farmers who grow it, but all of those who rely on the local business that it generates. The commodity brings traders into town, benefiting hotel owners, transport dealers, even market women selling bananas to passers-by. And while the future of the Somali khat trade remains uncertain, in Kenya at least, it is thriving. According to Kimathi Munjuri, "It is just a matter of a little more targeted effort by NYAMITA and the Kenyan government, and the crop will enjoy its due position."

And despite the lack of intervention to encourage farmers to cultivate the crop, farmers are showing an enterprising spirit. As Geoffrey Kamau comments, "The most interesting thing is that the cultivation, the marketing, and the whole organisational issue around this particular crop, could provide lessons to farmers growing other crops."

Date published: March 2007


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