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Khat in Somaliland: economic cure or curse?

Khat in Somaliland: economic cure or curse?

In Somaliland the narcotic plant khat forms the basis of an industry that generates jobs, income for the government, export revenue for Ethiopia – and much criticism. 

The sun-blasted streets of the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa, are inundated with stalls selling the narcotic plant khat. It’s estimated that 90% of Somaliland’s adult male population, as well as 20% of its female population, chew the bitter leaf.

Khat is so enmeshed in daily life and culture that it has become an important import tax earner for the government, generating 20% of its $152m budget in 2014 and providing valuable jobs. “Khat is the number-one employer in Hargeisa, generating between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs,” says Weli Daud at the Somaliland Ministry of Finance.

Those involved in the khat trade are part of a strong entrepreneurial tradition in Somaliland, a tradition that arose in part following the country’s declaration of independence from Somalia in 1991. Without formal recognition from the international community, the country had to go it alone and rebuilt itself after a devastating war with Somalia, a process in which private business and entrepreneurs played a critical role.

“In 1991, Hargeisa was totally destroyed, it was rubble, wasteland,” says Saeed Mohamoud from Horizon Institute, a Somaliland consultancy firm helping communities transition from underdevelopment to resilience and stability. “The first people who brought vital life back to the place were local entrepreneurs who took dhow boats to Dubai to get supplies.”

The city and Somaliland’s economy were rebuilt by such entrepreneurial energy. But today, still cut off from global financial systems and investment, there is a limit to the scope of business opportunities. In such a context, khat provides an obvious viable and sustainable commercial opportunity.

Khat has a long history in the Horn of Africa and surrounding region, including the likes of Yemen. Its leaves were viewed as sacred by the ancient Egyptians, while Sufi religious men chewed khat to remain awake to study the Quran late into the night. Today, khat is very much in the mainstream, an established and lucrative industry.

“It’s better than alcohol as you can still function normally afterwards – it helps you get more focused,” says Abdul, a journalist in Hargeisa, who previously lived in the US and chews khat when on deadline. “It affects people differently, it depends on your personality. After khat some like to read, others to work.”

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Chewing customers

According to Zahre, a so-called ‘khat mamma’ of 22 years who runs a stall beside a dentist in central Hargeisa, “Business is good.” She originally owned a shop and small café but decided to enter the khat trade as a way to expand her business prospects. Many others, however, ended up in the same trade through necessity.

“Many entered the khat business after the civil war as the only way to earn money to provide for their families,” says Zahre.

“After they started doing it, they knew how to do it well so they continued. An unaccountable number of women now sell khat.”

Many khat stalls display a colourful number incongruously emblazoned against a bright pink heart shape, signifying a particular supplier – and hence the type of khat from Ethiopia on sale – to cater to customers’ preferences.

“There are about 5,000 numbers,” says a customer at a stall selling khat from supplier 725. Every day trucks loaded with khat, grown in northeastern Ethiopia, cross the shared border into Somaliland and hurtle along rough roads through the desert to make their deliveries.

There are three types of khat: low, medium and high quality. Lower-quality khat costs about $12 a kilo, rising to $26 for medium quality, and $58 for high quality. The majority of customers typically spend between $6 and $10 for a day’s worth of khat, which amounts to a national daily spend of $1.18m according to Daud, a sum from which the government receives important import tax income.

However, critics warn that the flipside to this economic uplift is that Somaliland’s fragile economy loses a large percentage of its foreign currency through this trade. The country reportedly spends $524m a year – about 30% of GDP – on khat imported from Ethiopia.

“It drains resources,” says Mohamoud. “It also affects people’s health. Every day, users want it.”

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 Omar, a British Somalilander who returned to Hargeisa to take advantage of perceived business opportunities in the emerging economy. He claims that many employees work for just half a day before heading off for an
afternoon of khat.

Two sides to every coin

On the surface, Hargeisa’s bustling commercial scene doesn’t appear adversely affected from this all-pervading khat habit. Construction companies are throwing up glass-fronted
office buildings, SUVs jostle for space in the dense traffic, and locals make money transfers and payments through their mobile phones.

But Berbera, 150km north on the Somaliland coast, offers another perspective. During the afternoon khat lull, it turns into a ghost town. Despite a relatively busy small modern port operating on its outskirts, in the old town centre, buildings are crumbling and its economy is flatlining. Such scenes lend weight to the suggestion that khat’s dulling effects are more important than their energising effects, that the narcotic contributes to unemployment, and that the habit leads to dependency.

“My friends lend me the money [to buy khat],” says unemployed Abdikhalid in Hargeisa. “Once I’m employed again I will return the favour.”

Given these dangers therefore, there are many in Somaliland that urge against using the drug.

“I don’t chew as I know the effects,” says 24-year-old university lecturer Abdukarim at a busy Hargeisa coffee shop. “Initially you feel happy, confident, strong and high. The problem is the result. At the end you are weak. It should be banned.”

Fatima Saeed, a political advisor to the opposition Wadani Party, lobbied in support of the UK’s khat ban, which was implemented in 2014, believing the narcotic was having a negative effect on the Somali diaspora.

“Khat would arrive at 5pm on the plane and by 6pm men had left homes and wouldn’t return until 6am,” says Saeed. “After the ban it was like people woke up from a deep sleep; they started looking for jobs, being part of the family.”

With the ban, khat was designated a class C drug despite advice from the UK government’s official advisers that it should not be classified.

Many other Western countries have also banned khat, including the majority of European Union member states and most of the G8 countries.

Feasibility of ban

Saeed believes that a similar ban in Somaliland isn’t achievable given how ingrained khat is in both the economy and culture, but she does suggest that regulation regarding when the leaf is imported and sold during the day could help ameliorate some problems, as could implementing an age limit on buying khat. However, Saeed believes that the present government is unlikely to take any kind of action on the trade due to the large amounts of money and vested interests involved.

For critics of khat, this lack of action presents a huge danger, and some warn that the drug has contributed a whole array of social problems such as broken marriages, domestic violence and ex-husbands not paying child maintenance.

However, others continue to defend khat, arguing that it plays an important role in not just the economy, but in communal life.

“Khat brings people together, it facilitates discussion of issues and exchanging information,” says Abdul. “In the West it’s often difficult for people to interact, but here they learn about their neighbours and what problems they have.”

Meanwhile, Nafyar, who works in education in Hargeisa and often works late nights, comments: “I worry about the health effects but it helps me with my work. To really understand khat you have to chew it.”

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Written by James Jeffrey

After completing a master’s degree in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin in May 2012, James Jeffrey spent a year freelancing in US focusing primarily on business, including writing for the Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas Business Journals. In October 2013 he moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to write about business-related features primarily, while endeavouring to cover other topics of interest in a remarkable country.

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