The declaration by the British Home Secretary Theresa May that the UK government will ban khat, popularly known as miraa, have triggered an uproar especially among those directly involved with the multimillion shillings business.
Farmers representatives and politicians have vowed to petition the UK in the same way the Mau Mau veterans did a few months ago and won. This is besides going to court to force National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (NACADA) to stop calling coveted shrub a drug.
“The implementation of this ban will be an economic death sentence to not only the hundreds of thousands of miraa growers in Meru County but also many more who depends on the industry like sellers, tranporters and exporters,” says the National Treasurer and Spokesman for Nyambene Miraa Traders Association (NYAMITA) Kimathi M’munjuri. “It will also crush institutions like schools and churches in Meru who depends on their miraa plantations for economic survival”.
More than sixty tons of miraa is exported to the United Kingdom weekly, sustaining millions of livelihoods. If implemented the ban will cost Kenya around Sh2 billion per year.
The Advisory Council on Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) did a research that established that there was “insufficient evidence” that miraa caused health problems, but the Home Secretary insisted the findings might have overlooked some issues.
If London implements the ban Khat, whose scientific name is catha edulis, will be classified as class C drug alongside substances like cannabis and ketamine.
Sources who talked to Extra on conditions of anonimity claimed that the ban could be implemented as early as next Monday.
After Netherlands banned the shrub on grounds that its usage was leading to littering, noise and public nuisance, London became the major hub for miraa exports to Europe. Others Western countries like the United States and Canada have also banned the substance on health grounds.
The case of Kenyan miraa farmers is being complicated by an robust campaign by UK anti-khat activists led by Abukar Awale, a Briton of Somali descent.
“The word qaad somali term for miraa) in itself linguistically means to “take” in that once one consumes it, that individual is therefore “taken” under its influence”, Awale protested in a personal letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron after the release of the ACMD report. “The reference to the mosque in Cardiff that deems Khat to be permissible from an Islamic perspective is laughable and i feel confident enough to claim that you would be hard pressed to find any segment of Somali society prepared to speak for it”.
Unknown to many Kenyans, this is not the first war that Britain have waged against miraa. The colonial government banned the shrub in 1939 before it was reinstated by Jomo Kenyatta in 1974.
But how did miraa become a high earning cash crop for Meru County and the country at large?
“During Moi’s era the government sytematically killed the coffee industry which was the main cash crop in this area. By then miraa was not very commercial,” M’munjuri told Extra. “The collapse of coffee as a cash crop and the fall of Somalia in 1991 elevated miraa into a high earning export commodity”.
Being Muslims most Somalis dont drink alcohol hence most of their recreational time is spent chewing miraa. After dictator Siad Barre was deposed many Somalis were scattered across the world where they have to get their khat, hence the rise in exports.
“Exported Miraa is consumed by the Somali Diaspora and other immigrants from the Horn of Africa,” explains the NYAMITA spokesman. “Native Europeans rarely use the shrub”.
The export component have made miraa a “green gold” with farmers in areas like Nyambene growing nothing else but the coveted shrub. This means they have to purchase their food crops from farmers in the surrounding areas, hence creating a regional economic symbiosis.
With most average farmers in Nyambene having between twenty and fifty trees of khat, the harvesting is done in three-week cycles by which time the shrubs are green-red in colour and of desired chewing quality.
“With such a number of trees the farmer gets around Sh50,000 per harvest after every twenty one days,” M’munjuri, a farmer with fifty trees, explains. “The ban will drastically interupt the earning patterns of these farmers who relies entirely on the plant for economic survival”.
Miraa is sometimes bought before maturity by brokers which means crop owners can have their money long before the actual harvest.
Its during the harvesting season that child labour thrives since young miraa trees are not strong enough to sustain big adult weights. Children are preferred due to their light weight.
“As an association we discourage the use of child labour among our members and those found breaking this regulation are usually discipline, which involves being expelled and reported to the authorities,” says the NYAMITA Spokesman. “Even the Meru Council of Elders or Nchuri Njeke have spoken against and condemned the use of child labour”.
He says its upon the provincial administration to ensure such practises curbed and their perpetrators punished.
Meru County Woman Representative Florence Kajuju have moved a motion to parliament seeking the establishment of a task force to investigate the issue of miraa in its entirety, among them the issue of child labour.
“We want to invite the ministry of labour to explain in details about child labour in miraa industry, and if at all it exists what they are doing about it,” Kajuju, who will head the 29-member parliamentary task force, says. “We believe by the end of its ninety-day life time the team will have answered a lot of questions”.
Miraa farming is not limited to individuals. Institutions like churches and schools have khat farms from where they suppliment their conventional cash sources.
The plant is so attached to the Meru culture that some christians use it as an offertory in church or during harambees.
“The quality and quantity of the harvest can be affected by dynamics like weather and crime,” M’munjuri says. “Every farmer ensures there is a watchman to guard against thieves especially when the crop is just about to be harvested, a task usually relegated to young men”.
After the harvesting boda bodas and old Land Rovers trucks are used to ferry the crop from the farms to centers like Kiengu, Mutuati, Atheru, Kimongoro, Lare and others for grading and packing.
The grading or classification of miraa is dictated by the length of the twig and the age of the tree. These classes are the long twigged kangeta which is the most preffered for exports since its highly succulent and is still in good state for the hours it take to get abroad.
“The short twigged is popularly referred to as giza, while the long twigged version with leaves is known as alele,” explains the NYAMITA official. “Kata is from old tree and is consumed in Meru and dry areas of Mandera since its hardy due to its dry nature”.
Miraa holds a special place in the Meru culture with a variety called mbaire being reserved for respected elders when they visit a homestead. Its the version common in Eastleigh shops.
After being sorted out all the miraa harvested is taken to Maua, the unacknowledged capital of khat business in Kenya, where it is packaged and loaded into the legendary Hiluxes and Land Cruisers that are famed for their lightening speed along the Meru-Nairobi route.
The packing, done with banana leaves, is done by women and thousands of women in Maua town depends on it for their livelihood.
“Those who blames miraa trucks for overspeeding are ignorant to the fact that each one of these vehicles usually carries the financial destiny of up to three villages,” M’munjuri told Extra. “Small scale farmers have their small bundles packed together in big sacks and they have to reach their markets in good quality, especially those for export”.
If traffic cops, he wonders, can allow a cash escort vehicle carrying Sh500, 000 to break traffic rules around the city why interfere with a truck carrying more than a million worth of miraa from the far-away Meru.
Cruising at between 150 to 180 kilometers per hour, the first wave of Land Cruisers, leaving Maua at around noon, are loaded with khat meant for local markets like Nairobi and Mombasa. They are followed at around two oclock by the Hiluxes which ferry the miraa meant for export.
“United Nations complained that the trucks were being used to ferry small arms from North Eastern so as a rule no miraa vehicle leaves after dark,” M’munjuri explains.
Products coming to Nairobi land in Eastleigh where they are unpacked, sorted and then re-packed according to their destination. Khat for export is put in bundles of forty, called maraduf or itondo, in six-kilogram boxes and ferried to the airport in lorries and taxes.
The NYAMITA official says the Eastleigh deport employs more than two thousand people for unpacking the product, repackaging for export and distribution to small scale Nairobi sellers.
Due to the huge amount of money involved the export end of the business is dominated by Somali families with links in London and other foreign capitals.
Just like the matatu industry, the miraa business is self regulatory where individuals or groups run things using unwritten rules.
“All these are jobs that stands to be lost if the UK government makes good its threat of banning the crop,” says William Kimathi, a librarian and information analyst who have done several research projects on miraa for various non-governmental organisations. “Besides all these both Kenyan and the United Kingdom get tax from the miraa export”.
NYAMITA says the crop is getting a lot of bad publicity because of its unethical users who mixes it with other substances. This ends up giving miraa a bad a reputation and condemnation as a drug.
“When somebody uses sugar, sweets or soda to chew miraa its obvious that it will stain or destroy their teeth. You cant blame this on the plant,” M’munjuri protests. “Research have shown tobacco, a legal substance, killed 100 million in twentieth century and its still killing 10 million every year”.
He says tobacco, a confirmed carcinogen, should be banned and not miraa.
According to the NACADA website 3.9 percent of Kenyans chew khat with the biggest number being in North Eastern region. The agency says the problem should be addressed as a developmental issue where those who benefit from the industry are given alternatives.
“As NACADA we dont say it should be banned because it has its own cultural and economic significant in society,” claims the organisations Chief Executive Officer Dr. William Okendi. “But the issue of khat should be addressed critical by all stakehold with the intention of providing its beneficiary with an alternative”.
“The 29 team committee is going to investigate the issue of miraa in a way that have never be done before,” Kajuju says. “We are going to talk to all the stake holders, from farmers to the ministries of health, labour, medical experts and scientists who might have done a study on the herb”.
This, she says, is going to be done through field trips with the first planned on Monday where the team will have a seating in Meru County. Several people are invited to give their views.
“Afterwards we will want to have a seating with NACADA and find out whjy they have labelled miraa as a drug which can be used by other countries to classify it as a drug,” the Meru County legislator says. “We will also visit the UK, Netherlands and other countries and try to find out why they are banning the shrub”.
Dependiong on the task force’s findings they will compel the ministry of agriculture to classify it alongside other cash cash crops like coffee and tea.