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.
Ismail’s parents sold khat at a small street stand in Jijiga, about an hour from Ethiopia’s border with Somalia. As a girl, Suhura worked in her parents’ business and learned the ropes. But it was not a particularly profitable business back then, and nobody was getting rich until Suhura turned 18 and married her Somali husband, Mohammed Ismail Tarabi. Together, they started exporting khat to Somalia. Most of the men in war-torn Somalia are addicted to khat too, but khat bushes – which can grow to as high as three meters — don’t do well in a country where there is so little rainfall.
The best khat grows in the highlands of eastern Ethiopia, around Awaday. In the early morning hours there, business is at its peak, with women selling the leaves, and men toting large bundles of them to pick-up trucks waiting with the motor running. Most of the vehicles belong to Ismail – she owns 40. As soon as the back of the truck is loaded up, the drivers step on the gas pedal. They are all chewing on thick wads of khat.
Chewing away one’s life possessions
Khat is a stimulant. At first, it has a very bitter taste, but after about a half hour – just around when traces of greenish foam start appearing in the corners of a chewer’s mouth – the effects of natural amphetamines cathinone and cathine kick in.
Pangs of hunger subside, the khat chewer feels lightly euphoric, yet alert and focused, also talkative. However, to maintain this high, the user has to keep adding new leaves to the wad. Some men have literally chewed away all their family possessions sold to pay for their habit. In Ethiopia, a clump of khat costs between one and eight euros. Workers often earn less than one euro a day.
Hussein has that full cheek that characterizes a khat user. “I work hard, every day,” he says, “which is why I need khat. It gives me strength.” A khat farmer in Awaday, Hussein owns about a thousand khat bushes. “My father grows grain, fruit and vegetables. I only grow khat, because it brings in more money,” he says, shoving a few more leaves into his mouth.
Chew too much of the stuff, though, and you become psychologically dependent on it; you can suffer from anxiety, depression, sleeplessness. Hussein is unusual, in that he will admit this; most people in Ethiopia will not. “Khat makes you lethargic. And you don’t feel like having sex,” he says. He has forbidden his four children to chew khat because “they don’t have to work as hard as I do.”
The whole of Somaliland (like Yemen on the other side of the Gulf of Aden) falls into a deep khat-induced lethargy during the afternoon hours. In neighboring Somalia, the drug, which is flown in daily, is almost as important as the ammunition that fuels the civil war. When ships are pirated by Somalis, owners make sure to keep the pirates well supplied with khat.
And more and more khat smugglers are being arrested in Europe. “There’s hardly a passenger or freight plane that leaves Addis Ababa without some khat on board”, says one insider. With often overloaded delivery trucks, khat couriers transport the leaves from Amsterdam, where the drug is legal, to East African immigrants living in Scandinavia.
Suhura Ismail wants nothing to do with this ugly side of the business. “Can I help it if some people can’t handle khat? Or that it’s illegal in Germany? You don’t call your beer brewers drug dealers,” says the woman who boasts that she’s never touched a drop of alcohol in her life.
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.
By Philipp Hedemann
First published on Welt in German in 2011