Khat and the Ethiopian reality

Nov 19, 2004

Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa and colleagues in Ethiopia hope to create a national research center to study the impact, history and economics of khat, a psychoactive shrub, as a cash crop for the country.

Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa and colleagues in Ethiopia hope to create a national research center to study the impact, history and economics of khat, a psychoactive shrub, as a cash crop for the country.

Ezekiel Gebissa believes that the shrub khat is misunderstood. Ethiopian farmers, particularly in the eastern part of the country, consider khat to be an important cash crop. Unfortunately, many in the medical profession as well as officials in various countries, such as the United States, do not share this view because it is a psychoactive shrub that produces a sense of euphoria when chewed in massive amounts.

To help clarify the perceptions of khat, Gebissa authored "Leaf of Allah: Khat & Agricultural Transformation in Harerge, Ethiopia, 1875-1991," published by James Currey/Ohio University Press in 2004, a book that examines the production, marketing and consumption of khat in the Horn of Africa. "Most who chew khat are farmers," Gebissa noted in an attempt to alter the many inaccurate views of the drug. "They chew it for energy, not simply for pleasure. For many people in the eastern part of Ethiopia, the chewing of khat is a mark of identity. In other parts, people chew khat for leisure," he added.

But several countries like the U.S. currently deem the use of khat illegal due to its psychoactive ingredients. To get the desired effect, chewers must be orally dexterous to consume large amounts of the shrub. In the U.S., many people do not know about khat, although the federal government classifies it as a non-narcotic Schedule I controlled substance, a categorization born out of a debatable conclusion reached after a tragic event. In 1991, the U.S. sent soldiers to Somalia to aid in calming social and political unrest. Following several heated encounters with local forces in 1993, news stations aired video of rebels dragging dead U.S. soldiers through the streets Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. Reports at the time suggested that the rebel forces were users of khat and that the drug somehow made them violent.

Prior to this incident, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) paid little attention to khat. However, following the Somalia debacle and based on inconclusive reports, the Agency designated khat as an illegal substance, although officials clearly did not understand the history of the shrub or its limited effects on individual users.

Still, the importance of the shrub on the Ethiopian economy and society contrasts to the analysis of the U.S. Government. For Gebissa, who won a 2003-2004 Fulbright Scholar Award from the U.S. Government and spent a year in Ethiopia researching the economics, social and historical impact of khat for a second book, clarity is a necessity for people to better understand the economic significance of khat for the millions of people in Ethiopia whose livelihood depends on the production and marketing of the substance.

Gebissa is not alone in this research. A group of British scholars have initiated a project called "The Khat Nexus: Transnational Consumption in a Global Economy" supported by the Cultures of Consumption ( These researchers focus on consumption in a global context and state that the "importance of khat cultivation to the economics of the Red Sea region cannot be overstated." According to the project's preliminary findings, khat has become the chief export crop of Ethiopia and Yemen as cultivation continues to increase to meet the expanding internal and international demand. This is supported by the cargo flights that carry khat from Yemen and Ethiopia to such places as England, Rome and Toronto.

The acceptance of khat by some countries and prohibition of it by others could have a detrimental impact on the global marketing of the crop, which would hinder the economic well being of the farmers who produce the shrub. The paradox is clear: the use of the substance is an abomination for some and the basis of existence for others.

This perplexing dilemma is one Gebissa hopes to help people throughout the world better understand.

"In its traditional context, most people who chew the shrub do so for reasons unrelated to the typical reasons a drug user uses street drugs," he explained. "For example, Muslims use it to stay awake and pray, farmers use it for energy during long hours of physical work, and some urbanites, of course, use it for leisure. Farmers in higher altitudes in Latin America chew coca lives for heat. That's not the same reason as why people use the coca-derivative, cocaine, in the U.S. Obviously, the abuse of cocaine is not quite the same thing as the traditional coca use people have practiced for nearly two thousand years in the Andes region of South America. For farmers and traders in Ethiopia and countries in the Horn of Africa, khat is an important cash crop that provides employment to millions in the service sector."

The expansion of khat production in Ethiopia is not simply the result of growing international demand. Population growth is also driving the expansion. Gebissa says that due to pressures on the Ethiopian land and diminishing resources, farmers are switching to growing khat as their chief crop. This helps them become economically self-sufficient and improve their quality of life. This, among other reasons, is why Gebissa and his colleagues Dr. Tesfahun Kebede, Dr. Milkessa Wakjira, and Dr. Mulugeta Kebede of Alemaya University in Ethiopia hope to create a national research center focused on the examination of issues associated with Khat.

Thus far, progress on the center is slow moving. Part of the reason is that the national government in Ethiopia and various agencies do not feel such a center is a necessity at this time. Gebissa said that some U.S. officials who have learned more about khat and its potential impact on the economic and social environment of Ethiopia in the years since 1991 have come to recognize the benefits of khat. For example, some experts in the U.S. Agency for International Development now understand the role of khat in alternative agricultural development, which might help reduce poverty and food insecurity.

During his Fulbright year, Gebissa secured a grant of $1,200 from the U.S. Embassy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to organize a conference entitled "Khat and the Ethiopian Reality" to discuss the social, political, agricultural and economic issues of khat as a cash crop for the country. Future plans Gebissa and his colleagues include submitting proposals to funders around the world. He is also planning to return to Ethiopia during his off term for several weeks and work on producing an edited monograph from the papers at the conference. He hopes the scholarly edition would bring greater awareness to the issues surrounding the economics of khat as a cash crop for Ethiopia.

Written by Gary J. Erwin
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