The Chewy Khat Trade of Adama

Khat, a psychoactive plant, is said to have originated in Ethiopia and is widely traded across the country, East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Its increasing demand has elevated its potential as a source of foreign currency. The khat trade is conducted in thriving marketplaces across urban centers, towns and small villages of the interior spreading from its original confines along the coast and Harar. None though execute the trade with the skill, grace and perspective of the khat ladies of Adama, writes AMBESSAW ASSEGUED (

The cobbled narrow side street, lined with matured jacaranda and ash trees, stays in the shadows even in the scorching mid-day sun that rises and lingers directly overhead.

A corner of this half-block area is where the khat ladies – the ladies that sell khat – of Adama roost. A small boy sweeps and cleans the headstall; covers the tabletop with a plastic cloth; places a crucible filled with chunks of charcoal at the corner; lays out several plastic tubs filled with water around the chair; immerses the ends of the cut-stems of khat bundles in the water; and raises the chair high with piles of pieces of plastic tarps, foam and cardboard.

The proprietor, a stout figure wrapped from head to foot in the light-and-coloured fabric of Harari fashion, arrives in a rickshaw in the late morning to take her place at the head of the market. She dismounts clutching her prayer beads and carries several mysterious other bundles that she hands to her young assistant.

Once settled in her seat, the lady rinses her hands and examines the khat still held in tightly wrapped banana leaves, a parcel at a time. She picks a bundle out of a tub and shakes away the water from the stems and examines it with practised eyes.

She unties and unravels the leaves and spreads them out on her opened palms; plucks and discards some unwanted leaves; taps the ends against the table; brings the bundle close to her nose to smell, and then examines it again under a ray of sun that has somehow managed to penetrate the carefully shaded stall.

When satisfied, she re-wraps the khat neatly again before she places it back in the tab and picks another bundle to inspect. There are six or seven other ladies conducting a brisk business in the alleyway.

The trade is as much bartering as selling where plastic bags, bottled water, peanuts, incense and chunks of charcoal are traded furiously between neighbours and passersby. Friends, acquaintances and regulars constantly stop by to pass gossip, to catch up on rumours, to draw out conversations, to seek loans and credit, or just to simply pass the time amid all the buying, selling and negotiating.

The scene may have been from inside the Kashmir Serai of Lahore, immortalised by Rudyard Kipling in his book “Kim.” There is all the unloading and loading of bales of sacks and bundles; raucous catcalls and wrangling; bartering and bargaining; and the otherwise raising of tempos with loud greetings and arguments.

In present-day Adama, some 93Km south of the capital, khat traders and coffee brewers are as ubiquitous as the sand that plagues the city.

The khat ladies of Adama are merchants in the ancient mould who trade and barter; move large sums of money from hand to hand; advance credit here; siphon a small premium there; take a little loss now to help another trader with the long-view that gains will come soon enough; and thrive to keep everyone within their purview financially afloat because that is the way to future profits – skills practiced by successful bankers everywhere.

In another part of town known as Honey the trade is different. Here, the khat arrives by noon each day packed in vans that have travelled for around six hours from Harar to Adama. Here, the khat is fresh and tender for it has been cut the night before. It is a highly sought after commodity by consumers and traders alike, who eagerly await the vehicles in a small alleyway next to Dire Dewa Hotel.

The arrival of the vans is greeted with a mad rush toward the back where crowds of merchants and consumers mingle in a frensied, festive and excited atmosphere. The khat, wrapped in equal sizes and shapes with torn-up plastic-burlaps, is dumped on the dusty ground where trading begins instantly and furiously.

As soon as the khat is gone, the alleyway quickly empties of its excitements and the jostling day surrenders to a tedious and lazy afternoon that descends upon the city.

Ethiopia, the Land of Origins, can perhaps add khat, like coffee, as one of its endemic plants that originated in the eastern hills of the country. By some estimates, khat is poised to become one of the main exports and sources of foreign currency in Ethiopia. But there is a caveat.

“Experts doubt that khat will ever become a mass-marketed global commodity like coffee, tea or sugar,” according to a January 21, 2017, article by TheEconomist. Citing the experience of Kenya with the United Kingdom, the article points out that the trade “will probably be outlawed in [yet] more countries.”

The tendency of the government, desperate for foreign currency, may be to allow the expansion of khat at the expense of the endemic coffee forest products that require sustainable ecological management to thrive.

The long-view will thus be sacrificed by the government for short-term gains. There is a lesson to be learnt from the khat ladies of Adama who have cultivated bankers’ attitude of profit making – large gains are compounded in small increments over a long period of reinvesting.


Published on Sep 29,2018 [ Vol 19 ,No 961]



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