By Seleshi Tessema
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia
A high-spirited trader who goes by the name Chere Adugna chews an edible green leaf in his cheeks and stand sweating below a midday sun in the lakeside city of Hawassa, some 270 kilometers south of the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. Hawassa is the country’s trading hub for the legal, popular herbal stimulant known as qat (also known as khat).
Chere chewed over Anadolu Agency’s question and murmured to himself. He took a wheezy breeze, gazing at the customers queued in front of his qat shop. “For how long do I, we Ethiopians grow, buy, sell, chew, and get high on this God-given qat? For sure till the end of the world,” he said.
Chere’s lips were trembling and he threw a spent cigarette that was between his fingers.
“The chattering classes talk of banning it, but no one can take it away from us; it is our culture, our life,” he said, spluttering and howling with rage.
A short, nervous customer with a small brown mustache and small sharp eyes shouted at the trader. “Forget your philosophy, sell us our qat, we don’t have time.”
A national addiction
It was one o’clock in the afternoon, “high time” for those who chew qat.
Qat, a mild stimulant, has been banned in many European and North American countries.
However, the herbal high has been legally cultivated, traded, and chewed in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti, and Yemen for centuries. Qat arrives in capital Addis Ababa every day at dawn. There are 15 types of qat supplied to the city’s markets.
Daniel Megersa, an independent researcher, told Anadolu Agency that in Ethiopia qat is “a kind of national cultural addiction and a multimillion dollar business”.
“Qat chewing was confined to a very limited section of Ethiopian society,” Megersa said. “But now a significantly growing number of men and women of all ages and walks of life chew qat.”
Qat cultivation is growing by leaps and bounds. “In 2014-15, some 275 million kilograms of qat was grown on 248,000 hectares, of which some 45 million kg was exported, while the remaining 226 million kg was consumed locally,” he said, citing Central Statistics Agency data.
According to him, consumers spend nearly 800 million Ethiopian Birr ($37 million) annually buying qat. A bundle of qat, which consists of slender twigs, has a huge price range, costing anywhere between 35 and 1,000 Birr, depending on the quality and type.
Heightened focus, sleepless nights, restless stomachs
When the coming and goings of Chere’s customers subsided, he continued his lecture.
“Those regular chewers who bought their qat in the morning and early afternoon are by now climbing to the highest heavens,” he quipped.
Qat chewers cut a fresh, sour green leaf from the stem and hold it in their cheeks for hours.
Adem Abdulaziz, 35, a businessman who lives in Addis Ababa, said qat gives him a heightened self-awareness.
“We discuss business, everything under the sun, and it helps us to focus,” he said.
“It is a peaceful thing,” he added.
Citing medical research, Dr. Mesafint Abebe, the director of Life Addis Higher Clinic in Addis Ababa, told Anadolu Agency that qat induces talkativeness, sleepless nights, and depression at the end of the day.
“It can also cause and exacerbate high blood pressure and some gastrointestinal ailments,” he said.
Till the end of the world?
So for how much longer will Ethiopia allow the cultivation, sale, and consumption of qat?
The most realistic answer seems to be as long as there is a demand for it. And earthly demand seems set to remain till the end of the world, according to Chere.
“Ethiopian governments, past and present, never offered any assistance, be it technical or financial, to qat growers; neither did they oppose it. It has always been and remains a demand-driven business, which has created hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout Ethiopia,” Megersa said.
However, Ethiopian governments have reaped billions of dollars in taxes and export earnings.
According to official export trade documents from the Ethiopian Trade Ministry seen by Anadolu Agency, in the last three years Ethiopia earned $840 million from qat exports. Moreover, in the next five years, Ethiopia is eyeing to earn $1.5 billion from exports.
The export market is as varied as Djibouti, Somalia, South Africa, Malawi, Israel, India, Hong Kong, Norway, and Brazil — it reaches 93 international destinations overall.
Some sectors of society are lobbying to ban qat as a harmful drug, but others demur. “Banning it is absolutely unrealistic, however public education and control is feasible and a must,” Megersa said.
Alem Bezabih, a mother of four who is struggling with two of her sons’ addiction, accuses the government, media, and traders of not doing enough to curb the spread of qat.
“All are traders, profiteers at the expense of our children’s well-being. They must be held accountable,” she lamented.