ADDIS ABABA — The cultural tradition of chewing khat, a leaf that is a mild narcotic, is on the rise in Ethiopia. The East African nation is one of the world's chief exporters of the crop, earning hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Khat's popularity is growing as more members of the middle and upper classes are chewing the leaf. The natural stimulant is considered to be mildly addictive and the leaf has become the country's number-two export behind coffee.
But in Ethiopia itself, the government has banned khat houses. That means men now gather in private homes to chew and discuss daily life, politics and sports.
“I started chewing about seven or eight years go," one man explained. "It gives me energy to do more work. When I’m chewing I feel happy and I’m more effective.”
“I started chewing about a month ago," another man said. "I wish I started chewing before because it gives me pleasure and more energy to do work. You just have to be careful not to become addicted.”
Khat not only boosts energy but boosts Ethiopia’s economy. Although official numbers are not available, thousands farmers are believed to be growing khat. The plant can be harvested up to four times a year, and with millions of people using it in East Africa, Yemen and in the diaspora, it is more profitable than other crops.
The sector not only provides employment in rural areas, it also creates jobs in the cities. Now, there is a new phenomenon in capital city Addis Ababa: khat home delivery boys on scooters.
“There are some people who don’t want to be seen at a khat shop by other people so we deliver for those people," a delivery boy explained. "There are also other people, they want to sit in their house, they just want to relax.”
As the demand for the leaf in Ethiopia has increased, so has the price.
“Khat was very cheap 10 years ago compared to today. The highest price then was 20 or 25 birr. But today, half a bundle of khat is 60 birr and a full bundle of khat is 120 birr,” a khat chewer complained.
Studies show that health consequences of chewing khat are limited. Dawit Wondimagegn is dean is the Addis Ababa University Medical School. He questioned whether a growing number of users is desirable.
“The question we need to ask is whether khat chewing results in a lack of productivity or lack of opportunity [and] predisposes young people to chew more khat," he remarked. "In places like ours, where there is no meaningful employment, people get bored and they could go and start chewing khat to spend their time. We have to analyze this question very carefully.”
While students and professionals use khat in hopes of improving their school results or work performance, some towns in the country empty out in the afternoon after people start chewing. So while khat production is flourishing, it is not yet clear if more users will create less productive Ethiopians..