How the Stimulant Both Drains and Drives the Economy
by James Jeffery
In the Horn of Africa, qat, a leafy green plant that is popularly taken as a stimulant, grows all over the hills of Ethiopia. But the finest qat, it is claimed, is found around the prominent eastern cities of Dire Dawa and Harar. In the Babel-like Chattara market in Dire Dawa, qat sellers work late into the night, their stalls lit by a single bulb. Nearby, Aweday, nicknamed Qat City, serves as the hub of Ethiopia’s qat trade, where the substance is shipped to neighboring countries and even overseas. In its town center, bundles of qat are loaded onto trucks that will either travel eastward across the border into Somaliland or Djibouti or be routed to Addis Ababa where it will be flown all over the world: to Brazil, India, Hong Kong, Malawi, and South Africa, which are among the 93 international destinations that Ethiopian qat reaches in total.
Although qat is maligned in the West, where it is banned in the United States and considered a narcotic, in the Horn of Africa, chewing a few leaves is often no worse than drinking tea. It is a significant part of the region’s culture and integral to its economy.
In Ethiopia, qat is a top export. Somaliland buys roughly $524 million worth of qat a year—about 30 percent of its gross domestic product. (Many suspect the true figure to be much higher because in Somaliland, a poor country with little institutional infrastructure, the government is unable to measure the full scale of consumption.) Djibouti reportedly imports even more, according to those whom I spoke to who are involved in the qat trade, although the actual figures are unknown. Unsurprisingly, then, by 2007, qat had become Ethiopia’s second biggest export after coffee, generating about 11 percent of GDP and employing about eight percent of its workforce. Since then, Ethiopia has diversified its exports and qat has slipped down to fourth place. Still, qat generates $270 million to $840 million in revenues per year. Other than taxing qat—from which the government gets a healthy sum—the government has next to no involvement in the trade. It doesn’t need to. Demand driven, qat creates hundreds of thousands of jobs—some estimates say there are up to two million small-holder qat farmers throughout Ethiopia. Estimates on land being farmed for qat range from 160,000 to 275,000 hectares.
In the Somaliland capital of Hargeisa, qat houses, which are usually just open shacks, can be found on every street. There, men sit on ground mats chewing the glossy green leaves with their elbows propped up on pillows or cushions, and bottles of water or soft drinks beside them to alleviate qat’s bitter taste. Even in the dingiest qat establishment, shoes are removed before entering, and everyone greets everyone, even strangers.
“It brings people together, it facilitates discussion of issues and exchanging information,” local journalist Abdul told me as he chewed a wad of qat. (He asked not to divulge his full name.) “They learn about their neighbors and what problems they have.” Although there aren’t official figures, local media purports that 90 percent of Somaliland’s adult male population—and about 20 percent of women—chew qat. Evidence on the street seems to support this, with most men, and some women, paying a visit to their favorite haunt every afternoon.
As in Ethiopia, the qat industry is one of Somaliland’s largest employers, with 8,000 to 10,000 qat-related jobs in Hargeisa alone, which has a population of just under one million but suffers from an unemployment rate of 52 percent and youth unemployment of 75 percent. Those employed in the qat industry might work in its transport—driving trucks and minibuses that dispense qat around the cities and around the country. Others, including many women, sell qat at the markets, and there are even qat brokers who facilitate transactions between sellers and buyers. Then there are those who make a living renting out shacks for the qat houses or working for a vendor that supplies qat houses with drinks and other amenities. The network of jobs that qat has created is both wide and deep.
The Somaliland government, too, profits from qat by collecting taxes on its sale. In 2014, the latest year for which there are figures, qat taxes accounted for 20 percent of the government’s $152 million domestic revenues, according to the Somaliland Ministry of Finance. Qat costs about $12–58 a kilo in Hargeisa, depending on the quality. The majority of Somaliland customers typically spend between $2 to $10 for a day’s worth of qat that throughout Somaliland amounts to a national daily spend of $1.18 million. Since Somaliland is still an unrecognized country and it is cut off from global financial systems and investment, the qat trade is a lifeline for its economy. Take it away and Somaliland’s fragile economy could face even more strain, endangering the country’s current success in remaining relatively peaceful and stable.
THE UNWANTED SIDE EFFECTS
Because qat contains an amphetamine-like substance, there is much debate over whether it is addictive. It is celebrated in Yemen, for example, but vilified in Saudi Arabia. As much as the economies in the Horn of Africa lean on qat, users of qat must chew it continuously for hours, sometimes up to 14 in one stretch. Some experts blame the substance for mass unemployment in the region.
“The stimulant does not lend itself to the professional demands of an urban economy,” wrote Axel Klein and Susan Beckerleg in the book Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology. “It is widely identified as an obstacle to the integration of chewers into the labor market because it saps their energy, diverts their attentions, and replaces active achievement with animated chatter, building their ‘castles of spit.’ ” A 2008 report on the health and socioeconomic hazards of qat stated that it was responsible for “the loss of billions of hours of work.” And the World Bank estimates that in Djibouti, where unemployment is at 60 percent, the average household spends as much as 20 to 30 percent of its income on qat, more than on education and health.
There are also concerns about qat’s impact on health. A 2006 World Health Organization report noted that “adverse psychological effects included sleep problems, anxiety, and depression,” and that qat “affects the nervous system and can induce paranoid psychosis and hypomanic illness with grandiose delusions.” The report further warned, “Qat users who continue to use this drug when it is transplanted from a traditional context might experience difficulties.” On the other hand, however, the report acknowledged that qat use can be seen as “playing a positive role in supporting the cultural identity of the Somalian community.”
Some living in the Horn, as well as those within diaspora communities abroad, regard qat warily. “I don’t chew, as I know the effects,” said 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, but I don’t want to say more here.”
Omar, a British Somalilander, agrees. “We need to develop this country, and for that you should be working eight hours a day,” he said. “But that’s not happening here.” He had just returned to Hargeisa to look for potential business opportunities in the developing economy. He explained how many employees work half a day and then head off for an afternoon of chewing qat. Unemployed Somalilanders are certainly not deterred from their qat habit, which can cost up to $300 a month as they while away the jobless hours, borrowing money from friends.
“The problem comes down to the man not being part of the family and the woman being left to do everything,” said Fatima Saeed, a political adviser for Somaliland’s opposition Wadani Party who works in Hargeisa. Saeed said that she supported lobbying to ban qat in the United Kingdom—successfully implemented in 2014—due to the negative impact qat was having on the Somali British diaspora. “Qat would arrive at 5 PM on the plane and by 6 PM men had left their homes and wouldn’t return until 6 AM,” Saeed explained. “After the ban it was like people woke up from a deep sleep—they started looking for jobs, being part of the family.”
Opponents of Djibouti’s government, such as local journalists and members of the opposition party, argue that officials use qat as a means of repression, with those close to the government facilitating its sale in the country as a means of keeping a potentially frustrated populace calm. The government even hands it out to woo voters when campaign season rolls around. As the independent journalist Maydane Okiye told the Daily Beast in 2015, “The regime uses khat as a main weapon to make people calm. If the population is angry, or stressed—they make sure there’s khat … For eight hours they are high, and another eight they are sleeping—making the population busy for 16 hours.”
Evidence on the ground, however, suggests qat doesn’t need any government promotion to make its rounds. It’s popular enough. There’s even an argument in Djibouti that it would be spiteful to deny the populace its qat as it brings respite from the devastating heat, which persists day and night. As the argument goes, in the United States, Americans drink beer and watch sports; in the Horn of Africa, people chew qat and gather in qat houses, especially in countries like Djibouti and Somaliland where alcohol is prohibited for practicing Muslims.
Well before the British ban, the London Institute for the Study of Drug Dependence (now DrugWise) issued a fact sheet stating, “In cultures where its use is indigenous, qat has traditionally been used socially, much like coffee in Western culture.” Qat undercuts preconceived ideas, challenges our conceptions of what a drug is, of what addiction is, and of what an addicted society looks like. Some say the West could learn a thing or two from the Horn of Africa’s ability to embrace a drug without recourse to laws, enforcement, and meddling.
But, as one qat user told me one Saturday afternoon at a qat house in Hargeisa, “To really understand qat you have to chew it.”
This article was originally published on ForeignAffairs.com.