Khat is a narcotic crop whose leaves are chewed by millions of consumers in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The stimulating effect is so popular that khat cultivation has boomed in the past ten years, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Khat cultivation is especially prevalent in the highlands of Ethiopia.
According to studies in the past two decades, tens of thousands of farmers in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples (SNNP) region, have switched to cultivating khat, replacing the production of major food staple crops, including Ethiopia’s main export, coffee. The region is home to over 200,000 farmers, who depend on khat cultivation.
The immense conversion towards the khat monoculture farming system is mostly visible in Sidama Zone where most farming communities have abandoned production of food crops for the high-value cash crop, khat.
Khat cultivation is especially prevalent in the highlands of Ethiopia, where traditional home garden agroforestry systems had for centuries been the primary agricultural farming practice and supported the livelihoods of millions of people.
Frequent khat harvests
Unlike staple food crops, khat has a fast-growing stem and produces frequent harvests. For the millions of poor Ethiopian smallholder farmers, the high frequency of harvests from the high-value cash crop means a very profitable source of income.
Research conducted at the nearby Hawassa University reveals that, “khat harvests from 0.1 hectares annually generates six times more income than other staple food crops such as maize”.
I harvest khat three to four times a year.”
Temesgen Wereba, 43, a khat grower in Sidama area stopped growing food crops eight years ago on his half-hectare land.
“I harvest khat three to four times a year unlike other food crops or coffee, which come only once a year,” said Wereba. “The production of khat is more valuable. I make three to four times more income annually from khat compared to the total returns I used to gain out of the [other] food crops combined.”
Previously, Wereba used to cultivate enset, coffee, maize, cereal grains, cabbage and fruits that fulfil the food requirements of his family.
When no one grows food
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), smallholder farmers produce 70 percent of the world’s food, yet they are struggling to feed themselves and their families.
The extensive shift to khat production in Sidama area is a growing threat to food security.
The indigenous enset crop, also known as the “false banana”, is a major food source for millions in southern Ethiopia but farmers continue to clear out enset farms for khat cultivation.
“Khat producing communities are increasingly facing food shortages, and prices for food crops in these areas are rising over time,” said Solomon Melaku, a local crop agronomist.
Khat producing communities are increasingly facing food shortages.”
For the smallholder farming communities, a shift to khat production has fattened their wallets; however, they are at risk of potential food insecurity. “In theory, households practising the modified (khat-based) system can ensure food security through purchase of food from the high income they get from the sale of khat,” said Tesfaye Abebe, Associate Professor of Agroforestry at Hawassa University.
The Ethiopian researcher, however, cautions the potential socio-economic risks linked with high dependence on khat cultivation as a primary means of livelihood.
“If khat were to be wiped out due to pest attacks, unfavourable climatic conditions, or due to other species-specific causes, or if the government banned its production, the millions of farmers behind the sector would be subjected to serious food insecurity. They would not have alternative food crops on their farms.”
“Although the short-term economic benefits of these monoculture khat farms are attractive, the long-term effects on the land, water, plant and animal resources could be detrimental,” Abebe added.