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Food by VICE

The UK Khat Ban Is Impacting African Farmers

Last year, I had the chance to visit a khat farm in Kenya—a peaceful place most of the time—where the khat was bundled into high-speed pickup trucks and driven into Nairobi for international distribution. But at midnight last Tuesday, the edible herb...

by Alex Chitty
Jun 25 2014, 4:36pm

Photo by Alex Chitty

At midnight on Tuesday, an edible herb known as khat (also known as qat, kat, or mirra) became illegal in the UK. Primarily consumed by Somali and Yemeni immigrants, the plant grows on decades-old trees across East Africa and the southern bit of the Arabian peninsula, giving a fairly mild, coffee-like buzz when chewed. It tastes awful, but has an almost thousand-year history as a social lubricant, bringing people (mostly men) together to shoot the shit, especially in muslim communities where alcohol is frowned upon.

Late last year, I traveled as part of a VICE crew to the heart of khat country; the county of Meru in the middle of Kenya. One of the richest (and happiest, it seemed) parts of the country, Meru relies heavily upon the khat trade. Bucolic and orderly, khat farms—peaceful most of the time—turned into hives of activity for a couple of hours each day, as the khat, which loses its narcotic effects about 72 hours after picking, was bundled into high-speed pickup trucks and driven to the capital Nairobi. Watch the film, it's good.

Bundling khat in Meru

Bundling khat in Meru

In Nairobi, the pickups are greeted hungrily by members of the country's massive Somali community in a rich but beleaguered part of the city called Eastleigh. We joined a bunch of khat fans at a mafrish, of chewing cafe, which, despite the scare stories, had more of a youth club vibe than that of a "recruiting grounds for Islamic extremists." The biggest existential threat seemed to be to users' teeth—they insisted on chewing khat with Juicy Fruit gum, copious bottles of Sprite, cigarettes, and Somali rap mixtapes.

The "mashed up with Juicy Fruit" recipe isn't the only way of consuming the bitter-tasting leaves. In Tel Aviv, "hipster" cafes serve Khat Juice—leaves and soft parts of the plant's twigs, blended into cold water with lemon juice, then sieved and served in "shots." It takes several shots to take effect, say customers, who use it to stay up all night, reduce the effects of alcohol, and to suppress their appetites. Others mix it with cranberry juice, arak (Middle Eastern booze), lemonade, or dry it out to make tea.

The biggest existential threat seemed to be to users' teeth—they insisted on chewing khat with Juicy Fruit gum, copious bottles of Sprite, cigarettes and Somali rap mixtapes.

The UK government's ban, which will leave thousands of users wondering what to do on Wednesday evening when their usual khat delivery doesn't arrive, flies in the face of advice from scientists, doctors, police, lawyers and drug experts. In February last year, a report from the government's own Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs registered unanimous opposition to the ban from all kinds of experts, who basically said khat isn't bad for you, social problems in the Somali community probably aren't a result of khat, and it's not linked to terrorism, as the Daily Mail has frequently implied. The group of experts who wrote the report concluded that: "it would be inappropriate and disproportionate to classify khat under the Misuse of Drugs Act."

The government decided to do it anyway. On Tuesday, In an op-ed in your favorite Somali community website Hiiraan Online, the British Prime Minister laid out his reasons for supporting the ban: "what's most concerning is khat's social impact," he writes, "communities blame khat for family breakdown, unemployment, debt and crime links to the global illicit drugs trade."


A khat box bound for Yorkshire, England.

Referring to what he calls a "conservative principle," Prime Minister Cameron claims the ban is part of his mission to "help people to get on in life," and that khat users stay "up all night chewing, unable to function during the day, and stuck in a cycle of dependence... held back from playing their part in society." Finally, Cam-Cam claims the UK is "fast becoming the khat smuggling capital of Europe," referring to tons of the stuff which seems to make its way through the UK to other countries such as the United States, where draconian laws mean it's treated as a real drug.

In Tel Aviv, "hipster" cafes serve Khat Juice—leaves and soft parts of the plant's twigs, blended into cold water with lemon juice, then sieved and served in "shots."

At least Dave's being honest about his conservative party's ideological grounds for the ban. Maybe Somali men will spend more time with their families and less time debating politics with the footie on mute until 3 AM. Lots of British Somalis we spoke to— especially women—were keen to see the stuff off the streets and their husbands and fathers at home in the evening. It doesn't seem fair to ban something on purely ideological grounds, but there probably will be some benefits.

The real losers are those who grow and process the khat. The farmers of Meru, the green, pleasant, economically stable home of the UK's khat, look set to lose the biggest chunk of their business. A group of Kenyan MPs says almost two million people will lose their jobs, and has tried (and failed) to sue the British government. Some more radical elements in Maru have even said they'll try to shut down a British army base not far from Meru, calling the ban a "declaration of war."

Even more worrying is the loss of jobs in Eastleigh, where khat is processed into bundles (which, until Wednesday, cost about £3 in London), loaded into containers and sent to Heathrow. Since the Somali terror group al-Shabaab attacked the Westgate Mall in September last year, the population there has allegedly been harassed by police and islamists alike. The khat trade brings millions in revenue to the area, providing hard-working kids with legitimate jobs. Lots and lots of those will disappear because of the ban. As this kid explained, "These boys... if they ban miraa (khat)... we won't have anything—we will become al-Shabaab because we don't have anything." Rather than fighting terrorism, the khat ban might actually draw disenfranchised young men into the hands of radical groups. Not everyone's upset. As this alleged smuggler told us, "When they ban it I'll be making good money. Right now I get £60 (about $110) a box, and once they ban it I'll be making £300 (about $500)." Rather than going to mafrishes in Kentish Town, Southall, Birmingham and Glasgow, users might now hit up drugs dealers instead.