Welcome to Africanews

Please select your experience

Watch Live



Farmers turn to sunflowers amid khat export bans

khat tree   -  
Copyright © africanews


Row upon row of khat trees cover this farm in Meru, Kenya. The plant is the economic mainstay of this area, as well as the counties of Isiolo and Tharaka Nithi.

Also known as cathonine and miraaIts, its leaves can be chewed as a stimulant. Once, the harvest from the trees here would have been a money maker for the farmer.

But times have changed. In Kenya khat is classified as a drug by the National Authority for Campaign Against Drug Abuse (NACADA).

"People have a negative attitude (opinion) towards khat, even though it is not harmful. It is just a stimulant like any other, similar to coffee, tea. When you chew khat, you can work for a long time without getting tired," says khat farmer Isaiah Kiogora.

Many export markets have now closed to famers like Kiogora. In 2022, a diplomatic spat between Kenya and Somalia meant that farmers could no longer sell the crop to Somalia.

In 2014, it was classified in the U.K. as a class C drug and banned. Risks cited were low attainment, family breakdown and some users feeling cut off from society. And of course, the shifting climate is playing havoc with the harvest.

"In the olden days, we had reliable rainfall and it was sufficient. Khat would sustain us well, and Somalia was buying our harvests. Now, we have a drought and the crops have been affected, forcing us to plant vegetables, potatoes, beans and maize, so that we can at least find something to eat, because there is drought," says Kiogora.

Kiongora is not the only farmer to turn to other crops. Beatrice Kawira is experienced in growing khat. But once she saw other countries banning it, she realised she needed a different income stream.

Sunflowers are her solution.

"When I saw that the UK and Somalia had banned khat, yet I had not planted any other crop, I chose to begin planting sunflowers," she says.

"I found an advantage in sunflowers, as it allows me to feed my animals. When I make some money from it, I pay for school fees, and use the remainder to buy food. I've done this because there is no alternative, and my piece of land is small."

The bitter leaves of khat have a stimulant effect when chewed. Some say that it raises their energy levels.

It's still for sale at this market in Nairobi. But vendors used to sell it internationally.

"We used to export khat to places like London, Australia, Yemen and Israel. We would take care of our farms well with hopes of getting a good harvest and making money. However, now that these markets have been closed, our efforts to take care of our farms are futile as there are no markets to take our good harvests to," says Kinoti Karangu, a khat trader.

Executive director at Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) says the UK ban was the beginning of Kenya's khat market problems.

"Due to pressure from some lobby groups, who claimed that the Miraa (khat), twigs and banana fibre were dirtying and polluting the UK. Then they put pressure on the government to ban it, so it was not banned because it was a drug, it is because there were other reasons," he says.

Before the 2014 ban, the UK imported up to 2.800 tons of Khat a year, mainly from Kenya, Ethiopia and Yemen, according to a report from the UK's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.

View more