Flower of paradise, Ethiopia

The khat market in Aweday, Ethiopia

The village of Aweday near Harar in Southeastern Ethiopia is at the heart of the Ethiopian khat trade (or qat (Yemen), miraa (Kenya), marungi (Uganda, Rwanda). Aweday hosts one of the biggest marketplaces for the mildly narcotic leaves that have been chewed and enjoyed socially for centuries in the Horn of Africa.

Violent clashes between the neighbouring Oromia and Somali communities in the region had roads and khat warehouses closed in the first weeks of November 2017. Supply was cut off to neighbouring countries, and the trade is only picking up slowly.

Khat is picked by farmers and freshly sold early in the mornings, as the main active ingredient Cathinone is only present in the leaves if they are less than 48 hours old. In the warehouses on the main road of Aweday, the leaves are sorted by their quality for export, mainly to Djibouti and Somaliland but also to around 90 other countries that do not ban the plant.

The production of khat in Ethiopia has boomed over the last two decades, making the country the world’s leading source. Khat is now one of Ethiopia’s largest crops by area of cultivation: nearly half a million hectares of land are now estimated to be used for khat, with many having switched from coffee. Khat is the country’s second largest export earner, and an essential source of income for millions of Ethiopian farmers, traders and retailers.

Khat is generally described as a mild stimulant. Users simply chew the green khat leaves, keeping a ball of partially chewed leaves against the inside of their cheek, to get a light buzz called “mirqaan”.

Khat is presently illegal in some countries, because long-term abuse has been linked to “insomnia, anorexia, gastric disorders, depression, and liver damage”, according to a 2009 Austrian study. In the Horn of Africa, however, khat sessions are essential for social bonding and part of daily life, likened to coffee consumption so well accepted in Western countries.