The Horn of Africa’s Qat-22

How the Stimulant Both Drains and Drives the Economy

A man chews qat, which is used as a mild stimulant, May 7, 2012. Feisal Omar / Reuters

In the Horn of Africa, qat, a leafy green plant that is popularly taken as a stimulant, grows all over the hills of Ethiopia. But the finest qat, it is claimed, is found around the prominent eastern cities of Dire Dawa and Harar. In the Babel-like Chattara market in Dire Dawa, qat sellers work late into the night, their stalls lit by a single bulb. Nearby, Aweday, nicknamed Qat City, serves as the hub of Ethiopia’s qat trade, where the substance is shipped to neighboring countries and even overseas. In its town center, bundles of qat are loaded onto trucks that will either travel eastward across the border into Somaliland or Djibouti or be routed to Addis Ababa where it will be flown all over the world: to Brazil, India, Hong Kong, Malawi, and South Africa, which are among the 93 international destinations that Ethiopian qat reaches in total.

Although qat is maligned in the West, where it is banned in the United States and considered a narcotic, in the Horn of Africa, chewing a few leaves is often no worse than drinking tea. It is a significant part of the region's culture and integral to its economy.

In Ethiopia, qat is a top export. Somaliland buys roughly $524 million worth of qat a year—about 30 percent of its gross domestic product. (Many suspect the true figure to be much higher because in Somaliland, a poor country with little institutional infrastructure, the government is unable to measure the full scale of consumption.) Djibouti reportedly imports even more, according to those whom I spoke to who are involved in the qat trade, although the actual figures are unknown. Unsurprisingly, then, by 2007, qat had become Ethiopia’s second biggest export after coffee, generating about 11 percent of GDP and employing about eight percent of its workforce. Since then, Ethiopia has diversified its exports and qat has slipped down to fourth place. Still, qat generates $270 million to $840 million in revenues per year. Other than taxing qat—

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