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Tuesday, 20 August, 2002, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Ethiopia's khat dilemma
Khat traders
The trade in khat is a valuable and lively one

The chewing of khat leaves is common in the Horn of Africa, but in eastern Ethiopia it is both big business and a big worry for the authorities.

Khat is a major agricultural crop. Yet many some say it is addictive, harmful to health and a threat to young people and the smooth working of the economy.

In the Hararge region of Ethiopia it is hard to avoid the impact of the stimulant leaf.

Khat user
Many Ethiopians are regular users of khat

The first thing that strikes you in the main market in Awadai is the deafening noise.

The market square is a scene of total chaos as you make your way through bustling crowds preoccupied with the business of bartering for a prized commodity - the green leafed plant khat.

Awadai market is an international market for khat. Over 25,000 kg pass through it daily.

The buyers and sellers take their jobs seriously, shouting to one another in the local dialect of Afaan Oromo. They gesture excitedly as they trade hundreds of dollars daily for the khat.

Ahmedin Muktar has been a khat trader for over a decade.

"I buy khat from the local farmers here in Awadai, and sell more than 200 kg every day. I send it to other areas in Ethiopia, like Addis Ababa and the Somali region and I also export it overseas," he says. "Khat is very good for Hararge. It is the backbone of the economy.

"If you compare khat farmers with other farmers, you will see their standard of living is so much better. They have good houses and some even have cars - how many farmers do you know that have cars?" he asks.

Valuable crop

Khat is chewed for hours and users say it "elevates your mood and stimulates your mind".

Ethiopia's Hararge region is the main area for cultivation of the crop. Acres and acres of khat farms can be seen far into the distance.

In every town, people wile away their spare time chewing the stimulant leaf. It is part of the culture of Hararge.

"Khat is a cash crop which really benefits the khat growers, traders and the government.

"In 1999-2000, Ethiopia earned approximately $60 million from khat cultivation," according to Dechassa Lemessa of the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia (UNEUE).

"The employment created through khat cultivation is very high as large numbers of people are involved in growing, harvesting, sorting, packing, transporting, loading and unloading the commodity," says Dechassa.

The wood of the plant is used for fuel and, because of its resistance to termites, is used to make and fences.

Khat is also believed to have medicinal value, being used locally to treat influenza, gonorrhoea and asthma.

Official suspicion

Ali Mohammed has been growing khat for five years.

"I used to grow maize, sorghum and teff (a cereal crop), but these crops are difficult to grow as they require a lot of rains and a lot of attention," he says. "Khat requires little water or cultivation. For poor people like me, if you chew it, then you don't feel hungry and this is good if you don't have enough food to feed yourself," he explains.

Khat cultivation is expanding at an amazing rate as farmers realise its earning potential.

It is exported to Djibouti, Somalia, Yemen and Britain. Khat has become Ethiopia's biggest export, second only to coffee.

Khat farm in Ethiopia
Many farmers earn a good living from khat
But despite the cash earnings and the tradition of khat growing and use among the Hararge people, Ethiopia's regional government does not encourage it.

"It is addictive and this has a negative impact on our communities. People forget about their work commitments and spend hours chewing," according to Ato Mustafa from East Hararge Zone Administration.

Like most of his colleagues, Ato Mustafa chews khat himself.

"We have to change our culture and find an alternative cash crop," he says.

Youth problem

Non-users condemn chewing, but the number of users is increasing, particularly among the youth.

In urban areas, the use of khat combined with alcohol, is having an adverse effect on family life.

Many students and lecturers at schools and colleges chew khat because they say it increases their concentration.

But in the Hararge, Somali and Afar regions, business punctuality is a frequent problem, as the time after lunch is usually spent chewing khat.

Khat user
The stimulant is believed to be addictive and bad for you

Khat is banned in the United States and Canada, but Ethiopia's central government has no clear policy on the stimulant.

The issue is left for regional governments to decide.

Even in regions like Tigray, where the plant has been banned, cultivation and usage continues and attempts to replace khat with cash crops like coffee have failed.

Experts agree that more research needs to be done before rash decisions are made and livelihoods ruined.

They say that the best knowledge comes from Ethiopia's khat farmers and advise that the government work more closely with them to decide whether khat really is good for Ethiopia's long-term development.

See also:

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