“The Queen of Khat”, Somaliland, and the Future of Agricultural Trade?

A “must read” this morning on culture, trade and agriculture in the Horn of Africa, from Phillip Hedemann in Die Welt translated at Worldcrunch–read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts:

For many Africans khat is a stimulant drug that also stills hunger pangs. But the world’s biggest seller of khat doesn’t fit the typical profile of a drug dealer.

In Somaliland, not a lot works. Somaliland is a republic in the north of Somalia, which, although it declared itself a sovereign state, is not internationally recognized as such. But one thing you can count on here: Suhura Ismail’s trucks, driven at breakneck speed, arriving as regular as clockwork every night on the unpaved roads. The trucks are delivering khat, a drug that is mostly forbidden in Europe.

In Somaliland, on the other hand, the business is legal – and booming. Up to 80% of all men in the tiny country in the Horn of Africa are addicted to khat. Suhura Ismail says she herself has never tried chewing the bitter leaves. But it has made her rich, and in her homeland, Ethiopia, she is a highly respected entrepreneur.

“I was just voted Businesswoman of the Year,” she says. “And then I got a bill for back taxes amounting to 48 million Birr (1.9 million euros.) But we’ll figure something out. I have good connections with the Prime Minister.”

The 49-year-old mother of ten is the biggest khat dealer in the world. And although she does have a flashy gold tooth, there is none of the usual baggage about her that usually attends international dealers: no body guards, no fake names, no fear of other drug cartels or the police — though the tax man is a bit of a bother.

Then again, this Ethiopian woman would not describe herself as a drug dealer. The devout Muslim sees herself simply as an entrepreneur. Her family business sells between 30,000 and 40,000 kilos of khat each day.

In the 1990s, when coffee prices fell, many farmers in Ethiopia switched to growing khat. Since then, the drug has become one of the country’s major export goods – and the government of the world’s 12th poorest country wants its share. Ismail brings in foreign currency, or at least she does when she pays what she owes the state, which is 30% of her profits.

.  .  .  .

The girl who used to hawk khat from a roadside stand is now an entrepreneur with more than 1,000 employees, as well as her own airline, Suhura Airways. “In the world khat trade, Suhura is uncontestably numero uno,” says Ephrem Tesema, who wrote a thesis at Basel University on the production, distribution and use of khat. “And in Ethiopia she is thought to control over 50% of the market.”

Ultimately, Ismail’s great breakthrough was in removing the stigma associated with the drug. “She did a lot of PR, so in Ethiopia now the leaves are just another commercial product,” says Tesema.

Suhura Ismail says she would like to expand into Europe, and is hoping that the continent’s biggest market, Germany, will legalize the drug. It’s a country she’s familiar with. When her husband started having trouble with his teeth she flew with him to Frankfurt for dental work. Now, back home, his teeth are again in good shape, and he can return to chewing his daily consumption of the green leaves.

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