How Khat Turned Women in Kenya into Reluctant Drug Lords
By Jillian Keenan and Nasibo Kabale
Hours before dawn at Soko ya Nadhif market in Garissa, Kenya, middle-aged women in neon hijabs shout orders at men. They glide smoothly, like ghosts, through the darkness, groaning under the weight of heavy bags of fresh, long-stemmed leaves, each emblazoned with a woman’s name. They work quickly: just one day earlier, on July 4, 2019, a rumored threat from al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group just across the border, had sent everyone at the market scurrying to safety and cost them a day of work. Now the pressure to make up time is palpable – and so is the sense of looming violence.
“The safety of this place is not something we can take for granted anymore,” a woman yells, urging the men who work for her to get the leaves off the trucks as quickly as possible. The other women match her urgency, and by the time the sun rises, the leaves have been re-packaged into neat parcels, tied with banana leaves. The sales take place quickly, and before long the leaves and twigs have transformed into piles of cash.
“We are big time,” Khadija Dabar, 52, says with a wry grin as she counts her profits. “This is a good business because it’s always there. Whether it is drought or it is raining, miraa never lets us down.”
Khat, also known as miraa, is an amphetamine-like plant native to the Horn of Africa and Arabian Peninsula. Banned in the United States and most of Europe, khat is one of the most popular — and lucrative — drugs in the region, bringing in an estimated $400,000 a day in Kenya alone. The industry is so central to the regional economy that when Somalia briefly banned khat imports for a single week in 2016, Kenyan farmers lost millions of dollars. Khat is most popular with men: in Somalia, an estimated 75 percent of men chew the leaf for its mild stimulant effect.
In Kenya, they say khat makes men stoned, docile, and impotent. But it makes women rich.
In Garissa, a group of seven women, known as the Al-Amin Women’s Group, run the show. Dabar, who has been chairwoman since 2009, says it has become one of the most successful khat distributors in Garissa. After only a few years in the business, the Al-Amin Women’s Group — mostly made up of single mothers — has already made enough money to invest in its own fleet of six land cruisers to transport the drug between farms in Meru, in Kenya’s picturesque central highlands, and buyers around the region. Today, Dabar is her husband’s boss: he works for the women’s group as a driver.
But Dabar is an exception. Most of the women who run the khat business are unmarried: widows, divorcees, and single mothers. One vendor joked that selling khat is “like speed dating,” since all of her customers are men. The association between khat and single women is so strong that one driver, upon seeing a foreigner in the market, shouts: “Is the white lady making a list of women without husbands?” The question provokes a laugh, and a comeback: “Miraa is my husband,” one woman replies. “It provides for my children.”
The economic reliability of khat in this semi-arid region rests on a critical foundation: it is a drought-resistant crop. In Garissa, the ability to resist climate change means survival. The women of Kenya’s khat industry have the chance to thrive even as climate change puts other farm industries at risk.
Khadija Dabar understands the threat first-hand. According to various USAID and World Bank reports, African women do the majority of agricultural work in rural areas. For decades, Dabar was one of them. She grew tomatoes, bananas, and papayas on her 70-acre farm alongside the River Tana, and for a while, times were good. But the climate started to change, and the river that had once sustained Dabar’s farm started to drown it. By 2008, Garissa County was one of the regions of Kenya hardest-hit by severe flooding, according to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. One morning, Dabar woke up to discover that a flood had washed away 2,000 banana trees in a single morning. It had taken her nine months of work to grow them.
“I nearly died,” Dabar recalls. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Desperate to support her family, Dabar traveled to Nairobi to sell honey. In the big city, another businesswoman gave Dabar advice that would change everything: “Take that money to Meru,” the woman said, gesturing to the meager income Dabar had made from her honey. “In Meru, you can triple it.”
Curious to see how much she could increase the profits from her honey sales, Dabar traveled to Meru in 2008. The cool, green highlands of Meru County are the cradle of Kenya’s khat industry, and feel like a different planet than the golden sands of Garissa County. But the two regions are intimately linked in the country’s khat trade: Meru women farm the crop, and Garissa women distribute it.
The trip to Meru was the decision that transformed Dabar, a devout Muslim and middle-aged mother of ten, from farmer to reluctant drug lord.
Women have a long history of dominance in the East African khat trade. According to David Anderson, author of The Khat Controversy, a businesswoman named Yasmin who moved from Somalia to Kenya in the 1970s was one of the first people to export khat to the United Kingdom. Her wealth and success in the industry inspired others: in Somaliland, a disputed breakaway state in the Horn of Africa, an estimated 72 percent of khat vendors are female. In Ethiopia, one of the country’s richest women, Suhura Ismail, made so many millions from her successful khat export business that she eventually launched her own charter airline to transport the drug. (She even named the airline after herself.) In Kenya, women are present in every stage of the industry, from cultivation to distribution to sales.
It’s a good opportunity for Kenyan women, who have been hit by the twin crises of unemployment and climate change. According to a 2018 report from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, women are grossly underrepresented in all sectors of the workforce. Agricultural work is an exception — more than 60 percent of employed women in sub-Saharan Africa work in some capacity of the agriculture industry, according to a report from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. But that work is most likely to be affected by the changing weather patterns made more likely by climate change. Research on the socio-economic impact of climate change in Garissa County published in 2016 by the University of Nairobi concluded: “The county’s agricultural sector is already suffering from the changing rainfall patterns, temperature increases, and more extreme weather events, like the floods and droughts.” Since nearly 73% of Garissa residents already live below the poverty line, the climate crisis is likely to fuel social instability as traditional agricultural jobs disappear.
The effects of climate change have taken a toll on crops throughout Kenya: coffee production, for example, has been so severely affected that some researchers say parts of central Kenya are no longer suitable for coffee cultivation. In some parts of the country, the demand for crop insurance to guard against the risk of climate change is so high that, in 2015, crop premiums from participating farmers hit $1.4 million USD.
Enter drugs. Khat has low cultivation costs, is drought-tolerant and therefore able to thrive even during times of drought after other crops have failed, and requires little more than the basic agricultural knowledge that many women already have. Drought-resistant drug cultivation is such a good opportunity for women that it is also happening elsewhere in the world. In Afghanistan, where the religious practice of “purdah” restricts most rural women from seeking work outside their family farms, “women play a significant role in opium cultivation,” according to a study from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Like khat, opium tolerates drought, and can quadruple a farmer’s annual income, according to the American Security Project.
“When everything else has dried up, drugs like miraa are the one last survivor,” says Abdi Ismail, 49, a Garissa-based climate change researcher, standing inside a khat store where eager customers reach through metal bars to get their hands on the drug. “And there are always people who want to buy it.”
In 2012, when Jeniffer Kathure, 47, inherited two acres of farmland near Laare in Meru County, she wasn’t immediately sure how to use it. But khat quickly emerged as the obvious choice: Meru County farmers produce hundreds of tons of khat each day, which they export to distributors both nationally and internationally. Khat is of such central economic importance for the region that even churches and schools support themselves by growing the drug, Kathure said — Meru’s version of a potluck, or bake sale. Kathure decided to use her newly-inherited land to join the industry.
“When you have your own miraa farm, you have freedom,” says Kathure, who uses profits from her farm to fund popular “empowerment seminars,” training an estimated 2,000 – 30,000 women who want to start their own khat farms. “Women who don’t have property – they are not free. But I am free.”
While the benefits of joining the khat industry are clear, the risks are growing. In Garissa, near the border with Somalia, distributors such as Khadija Dabar and the other mothers of the Al-Amin Women’s Group have faced threats from al-Shabaab, the Somali terrorist group that regularly murders civilians and that has banned khat as “haram” (forbidden). In the farms around Meru, farmers like Kathure have to employ guards armed with poison arrows, machetes, and other weapons, to protect their plants. Khat farmers hire guards to deal with thieves so brutally that in Meru, Kathure says, if she sees a young man who is missing a hand, she knows she’s looking at a khat thief.
“Miraa is a very risky business,” says Rose Kajuju, 35, who farms half an acre of khat in Laare. “The ones who steal miraa are men, so farmers can be beaten or raped. We have to protect our miraa, but we have to protect ourselves also.”
International drug criminalization campaigns also pose a threat. For decades, Britain imported an estimated 2,500 to 2,800 tons of khat each year, according to the Home Affairs committee. But when the U.K. declared khat a Class C drug and banned all imports in 2014, the Kenyan khat industry, and the people who rely on it, were devastated. And although khat exporters have shifted their focus to other markets, including Nordic countries and Israel, the threat of criminalization remains a daily fear.
There is also a social cost to working in the drug trade. Since men are the vast majority of khat consumers, some Kenyan women say they resent the lethargic effect the drug has on their husbands and sons. Halima Haji, a mother of six and anti-khat campaigner in Garissa, thinks women in the khat industry should be ashamed. “It’s not a good job for these women,” says the 53-year-old, who successfully campaigned to get a popular miraa chewing garden in Garissa shut down. “These women have money, so they can’t be stopped. But nobody likes them.”
Many women in the industry shrug off criticism of their work. “Miraa takes care of my children,” Kathure says. “If you don’t like miraa, don’t chew it. Keep quiet, and let the rest of us survive.”
Kathure believes it is hypocritical to condemn khat while shrugging at other drugs like cigarettes, alcohol, and coffee. In 2017, she ran for elected office to defend her industry. (Her first campaign was unsuccessful: “They say politics is for men,” Kathure recalls, rolling her eyes.)
But for other women in the business, the criticism is harder to shrug off. Khadija Dabar says it weighs on her every day. “Miraa saved my family, but it’s hurting other people’s families,” Dabar says, sitting under a tree on the farm that used to be her livelihood. It’s an idyllic place: wild giraffes graze in the distance, and the Tana River flows nearby. Trees still boast the occasional banana or mango – reminders of what the farm used to be and perhaps, Dabar hopes, could be again.
“I need the money, but I feel guilt,” Dabar said, fiddling with one of the gold rings on her fingers. “If there were no more floods, farming would be a better job. But the floods keep coming, and my children need school fees. So I sell this drug.”
Jillian Keenan is a Nairobi-based contributing journalist with the Fuller Project for International Reporting, a nonprofit newsroom investigating issues that most impact women. Nasibo Kabale is a reporter with the Nation Media Group, the biggest media house in East and Central Africa.
Source: Time Magazine