Qat is famous for 2 things. One is that it is powerful in Scrabble (yo SOWPOD people!) and the other is that it is infamous in the Horn of Africa. So here is a short essay on Qat, since i have too much time while seated on long distance buses.

Qat, or chat, or tchat (pronounced chart), also known by its scientific name of catha edulis is a plant cultivated in the highland regions of eastern Africa and the Arabian peninsula. Grown at altitudes of 1500m to 2800m, the 2m shrubs are grown mainly in Ethiopia, Yemen and Kenya (where it is known as Miraa). From Ethiopia, it is exported daily by truck to neighbouring Somaliland and Djibouti. It is banned in Eritrea.

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The consumption of Qat brings about feelings of euphoria in the individual. It is a mild natural stimulant that creates a”high”. The qat itself is bitter tasting, and needs to be chewed on constantly for the effect to take place. Continuously eating the chat leaves will leave the individual oblivious to his surroundings.

It is a pastime that many indulge in, especially in the afternoons. In Ethiopia, qat is sold by the bundle for as cheap as 25 cents USD. Often carries by street vendors, shopkeepers and the like, it can be easily obtained. In Somaliland, colourful green qat booths litter the side of the road, hawking the various grades of chat. In Djibouti, whole shops and other small businesses shut for the afternoon, for the customary qat chewing activity. It is normal to find shopkeepers sprawled on their sides on the ground outside their shops, quietly “grazing” on the qat.

As can be predicted, qat chewing would have serious socio-economic consequences. In Yemen, qat consumption takes up 10% of personal income, and 25% of usable working hours in the afternoon is devoted to chewing. Even in affluent Djibouti, qat is said to be the reason for numerous divorces. Prices of chat here are higher, about 10 times what it is sold for in Ethiopia, where it imports its supply. The main impact of qat consumption is therefore productivity loss, with other side effects such as engaging in anti-social behaviour while under the effects of the plant.

Environmentally, qat cultivation is replacing other crops such as millet and sorghum because it is a more lucrative crop for farmers to grow. A recent study has suggested that qat is 10 to 20 times more profitable to cultivate that competing crops. It also consumes less water than other crops to grow, and so in some places, like water scarce Yemen, it makes more sense for farmers to grow qat. This however, is detrimental to the land, for, as qat cultivation increases, the water table drops and precious water to be used elsewhere is instead used to cultivate qat.

The simple solution to reduce qat consumption in the region is through education. But to wean societies that have grown up on qat consumption for hundreds of years will not be easy. It will take 10 or 20 years for education to have any effect. In the meantime, schools should raise awareness of the impact of qat consumption. Governments, short of banning the plant altogether, should draw up regulations to cut down on the percentage of arable land for qat farming over the next 20 years. Importing nations, such as Djibouti and Somaliland should raise the price of qat sold. This would have the effect of reducing demand, and subsequently the supply would also drop. On the exporting countries’ part, they could raise the export tax to make it less worthwhile a crop to produce, though this, if not managed well, would increase smuggling activities across the border.

Finally, in hushed tones, if one looks at this from another perspective, qat does have the potential for export to countries outside of the Horn. The detrimental fallout, should this happen however, is too huge to even think about.