Coffee has long since been associated with Ethiopia and Yemen, but there is another cash crop that is just as prevalent in Africa and the Middle East: khat, which can also be referred to as “chat” or “qat”.
Khat is a leafy green plant that has been cultivated and used since the 13th century throughout Northeast Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. It contains naturally-occurring stimulants which cause feelings of euphoria and excitement, while also suppressing the user’s appetite. The plant’s leaves can be chewed, brewed as tea, smoked, or even broken down into a paste.
So, why do so many people grow khat? What are its wider implications for society? And how does khat farming affect coffee production in these areas? To find out more, I spoke to two industry experts.
What Is Khat?
Coffee and khat can both be traced back to the Kaffa province in southwestern Ethiopia. There, the plants have coexisted for centuries. Historically, at certain altitudes, coffee was even grown to protect khat plants from adverse weather conditions, as excessive sunlight can scorch and damage the plant’s leaves.
Daniel Halalla is the co-founder of Impact Roasters in Copenhagen, Denmark. Daniel originally comes from Ethiopia, and as such, Impact has a focus on Ethiopian coffee.
“Coffee and khat have a long, intricate relationship,” he says. “Many centuries [ago, farmers would remove] coffee plants in place of khat, but coffee survived by being moved to the different regions of Ethiopia, like Sidamo and Yirgacheffe.”
Khat also spread throughout Ethiopia and across its borders for religious reasons. “Both khat and coffee are native to Ethiopia, and both are connected to Yemen,” Daniel explains. It is believed that Islam brought khat across the sea from Ethiopia and into Yemen around the 15th century.
The plant has played a role in Islamic culture for centuries. As far back as the 17th century, there are records of debates about the effects of coffee and khat, and which plant gave users the most euphoria and energy.
“The Harari people were practising the Sufism form of Islam, and they used different things to concentrate,” Daniel tells me. ”Both coffee and khat were used for their stimulating [effects].”
Khat’s effects are often likened to those of a mild amphetamine. The naturally occurring chemical compounds in its leaves trigger the release dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline in the human body. This makes users feel more alert and attentive, but also suppresses the appetite and increases the likelihood of insomnia.
A Popular Crop
There are an estimated 20 million khat users worldwide. The Yemeni khat market alone has been estimated as being worth around US $12 billion. Some 44 different varieties of khat are grown in Yemen, where the plants can grow as high as 10 metres.
In Ethiopia, three million farmers grow khat. It is worth more per acre than any other crop in the country, including coffee – the country’s biggest export by volume.
Heleanna Georgalis is the President of Moplaco Trading, a green coffee exporter based in Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. “In the last 20 years it has become popular and spread among the population,” she says. “As it is very profitable, it has significantly damaged coffee growing areas.”
Daniel adds: “The Harari region is the biggest exporter and producer of khat in the world. [Crops are often sent to major] markets in eastern Ethiopia.”
In Yemen and Somaliland, countries where khat is heavily consumed, it is estimated that around 90% of adult men chew khat. In comparison, however, only 30% of women in these countries consume the plant.
Men and women must also chew khat separately according to Islamic tradition. There are also a number of derogatory stereotypes about female consumption of the plant, most notably that it “distracts” them from housework.
However, Daniel tells me that today, khat use is becoming more popular for reasons beyond religious tradition. “About 20% of Ethiopian youth today use khat on a daily basis, for studying and to stay awake for a longer period of time.”
People often meet at khat cafés, also known as “mafrishes”, which are social establishments, not unlike a coffeehouse. “[When] young people socialise, they chew khat as a way of getting together,” Daniel says.
Legality & Consumption Around The World
The legal status of khat varies across the world. “It’s legal in the Eastern parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, Yemen and other Arab countries, and to some extent, also in Israel,” Daniel says. “But in most countries – especially Europe [and the US] – it is illegal.”
In the UK, for instance, it was denoted a Class C drug in 2014 (meaning that possession can result in a prison sentence of a maximum of two years). It was similarly criminalised in the US in the early 1990s.
And even though khat is legal in some African and Middle Eastern countries, consumption is still a contentious issue in these places. Daniel says: “Even though it’s legal in Ethiopia, it is not encouraged there; the government [has been] closing down khat and shisha bars.”
The reason for this, many people believe, are rising levels of addiction alongside the health issues associated with long-term usage of the stimulant.
“[The] young male population in Ethiopia is very large,” Heleanna tells me. “For males between 17 and 35 with little to no education, drugs and recreation are the easy ways out of all their problems, and to tackle their unemployment and lack of prospects.”
Furthermore, some 20% of Ethiopian khat users experience negative side effects when consuming khat, which can include high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Continuous use can cause physiological withdrawal symptoms, and can also exacerbate preexisting medical conditions.
In Yemen, khat uses a staggering 30% of the country’s total water supply; some 60% of agricultural land in the country is dedicated to khat cultivation.
“For a khat tree to [reach] its full height, it takes seven or eight years,” Daniel tells me. “They have deep, long roots which take a lot of underground water.”
Most of Yemen’s water comes from underground aquifers that are slowly refilled when it rains. However, the intense level of khat farming in the country and its high levels of water usage are especially poignant given that Yemen currently faces a critical water shortage.
Half of the country’s population has no access to clean water, and some estimates suggest that the largest city in Yemen, Sanaa, could be without water as soon as 2030.
Khat Vs Coffee Growing
Despite the various negative effects associated with the growth and use of khat, the total volume of khat grown per year has increased by 246% in Ethiopia.
The amount of land used for khat cultivation increased by 160% between 2001 and 2015, while the amount of land used to grow coffee increased by 133% in comparison.
“More farmers are switching from growing coffee to khat for price reasons,” Heleanna explains. “The [sale] price for 1kg of coffee is Br31 (US $0.86/kg) while for 1kg of khat it is Br900 (US $25).
“Khat produces more for the farmer. You might need 10 trees for 1kg of khat, and even though one coffee plant yields 6 to 12kg of cherries, khat plants need [much] less care.”
It takes 10 years for a khat tree to fully mature, but just three to four years before it can be harvested. They require considerably less attention than coffee trees; they only need to be weeded about once a year, and they grow well through seasons with heavier rainfall.
Furthermore, khat plants can be harvested up to five times a year, unlike coffee, which can be harvested only once a year. Daniel adds: “When the khat harvest is over, the coffee harvest starts, so the farmer still keeps some coffee trees to continue his influx of cash.”
Income from just half a hectare of khat cultivation can be six times greater than Ethiopia’s average income per capita, and three times the amount that a coffee grower receives for the same area. As such, diversifying from coffee into khat can support farmers to make more money and guarantee a more stable income for their families all year round.
However, Helenna explains that coffee and khat plants often compete for resources – and coffee often loses the battle. “They can grow side by side, but khat plants often absorb all the water from the ground, leaving coffee plants dry and hungry with poor yields.”
Will We See A Move Towards Coffee?
In response to concerns about khat’s high water usage, Yemeni farmers in the mountainous region of Haraz have uprooted some two million khat trees to make space for more coffee and corn plants.
Around 75% of the agricultural land in eastern Haraz is ideal for coffee production, and it is estimated that coffee needs just a quarter of the natural resources that khat requires. This move is timely giving the pressing concerns of the Yemeni water crisis.
But even if farmers do use less water, there is still the issue of their livelihoods. “Khat provides better income for the farmers than coffee, and it gives them more stability,” Daniel says.
“For the farmers, it’s all about their income and sustaining their families, so whichever gives them more income per hectare is what [they will choose].”
However, Daniel adds that there may other, more environmentally sustainable solutions that could provide coffee producers with more income streams and greater stability.
“Coffee is grown in just one season,” he says. “However, if we can use the coffee leaf, which is also evergreen, as a tea, then farmers could get extra income.
“In Ethiopia, coffee leaf tea is not as popular as khat… [but] it is used in the southwestern and western parts of the country.”
Coffee leaf tea has a similar amount of caffeine to green tea, and is often associated with health and wellbeing.
“In the eastern parts of Ethiopia, 70% of the farms are now occupied by khat,” Daniel says. “However, many years ago, that used to be coffee; maybe coffee leaf tea could [come to] be an alternative.”
Ultimately, if we want to see a move away from khat – for reasons grounded in public health and resource scarcity – coffee producers in Ethiopia and Yemen will need greater income security. And while this change is coming, as evidenced by widespread agricultural initiatives to uproot and replace khat plants, for countries like Yemen, it could well be too little too late.
In the current economic situation, farmers are much more likely to choose khat over coffee, as their income will be both higher and more stable because the khat plant can be harvested repeatedly throughout the year.
However, despite the fact that khat sells for a much higher price than coffee, its detrimental impact on water availability and the health of those who use it are too severe to ignore.
Sustainable, transparent, and traceable coffee production at scale could be the solution to this problem. To truly drive sustainable change, producers will need to switch from khat to coffee on a much wider scale, and for that to happen, they need greater income security. It is as simple as that.
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