August 31, 2001 - Somalia Watch: Peace Corps volunteers in Yemen in the 1970's were encouraged to attend qat sessions as a way of learning about the culture

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Yemen: Peace Corps Yemen: The Peace Corps in Yemen: August 31, 2001 - Somalia Watch: Peace Corps volunteers in Yemen in the 1970's were encouraged to attend qat sessions as a way of learning about the culture

By Admin1 (admin) on Friday, January 31, 2003 - 3:53 pm: Edit Post

Peace Corps volunteers in Yemen in the 1970's were encouraged to attend qat sessions as a way of learning about the culture

Peace Corps volunteers in Yemen in the 1970's were encouraged to attend qat sessions as a way of learning about the culture

TED Case Studies - Qat Trade in Africa

for complete coverage see
TED Case Studies
Qat Trade in Africa


I. Identification
1. The Issue

Qat (pronounced cot), also referred to as khat, quatt, kat, and tchat (in Ethiopia), is a leafy narcotic popular in certain areas of Africa and, more recently, Britain. Qat, from the Catha Edulis tree, originated in Ethiopia and spread to Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Arabia, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Madagascar, South Africa and Yemen. Yemeni qat is the most often discussed, and reportedly of greater quality than that from other places. When chewed, qat leaves produce feelings of euphoria and stimulation. Qat has become a major cultural phenomenon for Yemeni and Somali societies and has ben the cause of conflict over production and distribution in these countries.
2. Description

Qat (pronounced cot), also referred to as khat, quatt, kat, and tchat (in Ethiopia), is a leafy narcotic popular in certain areas of Africa and, more recently, Britain.(1) Qat, from the Catha Edulis tree, originated in Ethiopia and spread to Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Tanzania, Arabia, the Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Madagascar, South Africa and Yemen. Yemeni qat is the most often discussed, and reportedly of greater quality than that from other places, in part, due to the high terraces on which it grows in Yemen. Other reports suggest Kenyan and Ethiopian qat is equally good due to the "loose volcanic soil" found in those countries.(2) When chewed, qat leaves produce feelings of euphoria and stimulation.

A. Historical Qat Use

In ancient times, qat was chewed by Muslims in lieu of alcohol. Legend also suggests that qat was used by "religious practitioners as a way of remaining alert for all-night prayer vigils."(3) Other historical references indicate that, in the 13th century, physicians prescribed qat to soldiers to reduce fatigue.(4) Qat chewing as a recreational habit may have begun in the southern Red Sea region prior to the 14th century.(5) Qat was brought to Yemen over 700 years ago, where it was chewed by "bored merchants and mystics."(6) Today, qat chewing has a much larger population. In the 1970s, in Yemen, qat production and consumption was revolutionized with increased use of cars and roads. Estimates suggest over 90% of Yemeni men now chew qat on a regular basis, and are equally high for other countries. (Statistics for women vary per country from 10% to over 60%.) (7) Urban populations, especially women, are more likely to engage in qat chewing than rural. This is because women in the cities are less likely to work than women in the country, and even the men in the city are more likely to have free time than rural laborers and farmers.

Qat contains cathinone, a natural amphetamine which produces a high after prolonged chewing. In the United States, cathinone is listed as a Schedule I drug, with heroin and cocaine. However, during the maturation and decomposition of qat, cathinone is converted to cathine, which is a Schedule IV substance (legal).(8) The conversion of cathinone can occur as early as 48 hours after the leaves are harvested. As a result, producers of qat cut the leaves early in the morning to get them to the market by lunch time, when many Yemeni workers leave work for afternoon qat chewing sessions.

B. Qat Affects

The effects of qat include alertness, energy and euphoria. While users report clarity of thoughts and increased concentration, medical practitioners suggest that concentration and judgement are, in fact, impaired. (9) Qat can also result in increased aggression and "fantasies of personal supremacy." (10) Further, qat serves as an appetite inhibitor. Reports vary regarding the use of qat as an aphrodisiac: men report increased sexual performance, though women disagree.(11) The American Medical Association Journal reported that qat "makes most men sexually disinclined or incapable."(12) Long-term use may produce impotence.

Folk medicine prescribed qat for the treatment of malaria and coughs; other doctors contend that qat contains "anti-acid elements" which have a stabilizing effect on sugar diabetes.(13) However, generally, there are no medically accepted benefits of qat. Moreover, qat can have negative effects including constipation, hemorrhoids, hernias, paranoia and depression. (14) An interesting link has been drawn between qat use and increased AIDS among prostitutes in Djibouti: one report suggests that men, high on qat, go to prostitutes and refuse to wear condoms. As a result of the increased aggression produced by the qat, the women are afraid to deny the men, and engage in unprotected sex.(15) In 1973, the World Health Organization listed qat as a "dependence producing drug" implying that users will attempt to get daily supplies to the "exclusion of all other activities." (16). While the medical community acknowledges the potential development of a psychological dependence on qat, it is not considered an addictive drug.
C. Qat Sessions

Qat has become a cultural phenomenon in Yemen, and other African countries. Until 20 years ago, qat chewing was a weekend habit for the rich. Now, it is chewed several days a week by a large percent of Yemen's population, as well as people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti.(17) In the 1970s, U.S. Peace Corps volunteers in Yemen were encouraged to attend qat sessions as a way of learning about the culture.(18) The social aspect of qat chewing is as important, if not more so, than the physical high it creates.

In Yemen, work days end between 2pm and 3pm at which time, groups of 10-50 people convene upon a house to dine and chew. In almost every house, there is a "'mafraj,' the highest most pleasant room in the house," where qat sessions are held.(19) No food is served with the qat, only water to help wash the leaves' juices into the system. Between 100 and 200 grams of leaves are chewed over three or four hours.(20) The leaves are placed in the mouth and held between the molars and the cheek. In fact, the correct translation of the verb used in Yemen to describe the act is "storing," not chewing.(21).

Chewers relax and become intellectually focused. Many users report being creatively inclined to write poetry. One chewer claimed that "[w]hen my computers go down I can do two things--send for a repairman or chew qat. You can never find the former so I do the latter. After a while, I am filled with such resolve I am able, without training or expertise, to fix the computers myself." (22)

Stimulation from qat can occur with in first 15 minutes of chewing, though the peak "high" is reached in the third hour. Effects from the chewing can remain up to 24 hours. Following the high, a slight depression, or melancholy, sets in and remains for a few hours. Tea with milk is often served at the end of a qat session. (23)

Qat sessions are a major part of Yemeni life: participants regard the time spent chewing qat as productive time, when business deals are arranged, communication is strengthened and verbal skills are improved. Information and ideas are easily exchanged, and culturally "desirable behavior" is reinforced. In general, women and men hold qat sessions separately. Women's qat sessions, with dancing and music, are often more lively than men's.(24)
D. The Economics of Qat

Prior to the expansion of qat trade, coffee was the biggest crop in Yemen. However, Yemeni coffee trade peaked in the 17th and 18th centuries and then began to decline from competition with coffee production in Indonesia, South America, and East Africa. Now, as a result of national and regional demand, qat is replacing coffee crops. Currently, in Yemen, estimates suggest one-half to two-thirds of arable land has been cultivated for qat, largely because farmers earn five times as much for qat as for other crops, including coffee. (25) In fact, in 1992, qat "held its price, while coffee slumped." (26) Qat is also Ethiopia's fastest growing export. (27) In Ethiopia, over 93,000 hectares have been devoted to qat production, the second largest crop in terms of land area (coffee is first). (28) Though qat cultivation has taken over the arable land because of its value, as a crop it is "non-nutritious and unproductive."(29)

The replacement of coffee and other crops for qat is detrimental to the economy because it drains foreign investment. Primarily, only local, regional governments and a growing market in Britain import qat. Qat is illegal in the United States, Holland and much of Europe.

Despite the regional parameters of qat trade, an extensive and efficient system of production and distribution has arisen for the industry. On journalist noted that the "network of production and distribution is sophisticated, and if ever applied to something other than qat, Yemen might suddenly find itself in much better economic condition." (30)

Some argue that qat harms the economy by encouraging laziness and absenteeism: as workers go to lunch and then engage in qat sessions and do not return. A 1973 estimate suggests that over 4 billion hours of work a year were lost as a result of qat chewing. While, today, this claim is widely disputed, in 1967, the Marxist government of South Yemen attempted to do away with qat because of the laziness it allegedly inspired. With wide resistance to a total ban, the government placed a heavy tax on the narcotic. Surprisingly, the people paid the tax and kept on chewing. As a result, by 1985 qat "ranked first among taxes on agricultural products and second among all excise duties," in increasing revenue. (31)

Qat is also cited as part of the problem for the economies of Ethiopia, Yemen, Djibouti and others in part because, statistics suggest, nearly every family spends one third of its disposable income on qat. In 1993, the average family income in Yemen was $700 a year.(32) Qat can cost up to $20 per person a day; in 1992, the LA Times reported that Yemeni's spend an estimated $2 million a day to consume qat.(33) Ultimately, the "crux of the matter is that people do not pay as little as they can [for qat], but as much as they can afford.(34)

A further problem with qat is the "mafia-like" control over production and distribution. "Those who produce qat and those who grow it are so powerful that nobody would start campaigning against it. . . like the mafia in Italy or cocaine. . .in Colombia." (35). For example, in 1983, Somali president Siad Barre banned qat and called for food crops. However, the ban was repealed in 1990, apparently after the qat trade had been taken from the border-controlling Ysaaq clan, and placed in the hands of his administration, triggering accusations that such a transfer of control had been the intent of the ban in the first place. (36)

Somalia only produces enough qat for local, rural use. During the civil conflict in Somalia, warlords controlled the import and distribution of qat. Much of Somali qat is imported from Yemen and Ethiopia. In fact, in 1992, "the value of khat imported [into Somalia] dwarf[ed] that of any other commodity including food and weaponry."(37) In 1993, the Kenya-Somalia trade in qat equaled approximately $100 million annually for wholesalers, transporters and street dealers.(38) Most of the profits made by the warlords were invested in banks abroad, e.g. Rome, rather than placed back into the local economy. Further, "[r]elief workers and U.S. diplomatic sources speculate[d] that food and fuel [were] looted and sold for more khat, rather than" dipping into existing profits.(39) Finally, it was reported that stolen relief supplies were sold to merchants by the militias to purchase qat. (40)

One final note on the economics of qat trade relates to the potentially violent political environment. In Somalia, three boys were assassinated on an air strip over 15 pounds of qat.(41) In Yemen, increased production of qat brought attempts to steal it. "A considerable percentage of the violent deaths in [Yemen] result[ed] from theft, and in the absence of efficient police forces, guarding the fields has become one of the significant costs of the qat farmer."(42)
E. The Environment of Qat
Qat is a relatively uncomplicated crop. It has long periods of harvesting and, in contrast to coffee, is harvested in small quantities throughout the year (qat cannot be accumulated as it loses its potency within 48 hours of picking).(43) Further, it does not require fertilizer and thrives when interplanted, with legumes, peaches, papayas, limes, citrus or banana crops.(44) Qat is an unsteady crop in Africa in terms of its dependence on rainfall, and the fluctuations associated therein.

Qat's dependence on water has facilitated technological advancements in the areas when qat is grown (especially Yemen). Irrigation systems, among other forms of water technology, have sprung up in the area. "Qat is [also]. . .financing most of Yemen's groundwater development."(45) This could actually be a benefit to Yemen, with the water scarcities inherent in the region.

Environmentally detrimental effects of qat may include soil erosion. Though qat does not need fertilizer, it does remove "considerable amounts of plant nutrients from the soil."(46) While there is little evidence of qat cultivation as a cause of soil erosion, it is certainly a possibility because of the number of new qat crops being planted and the re-cultivation of other cropland for qat production. Further, as mentioned, the expansion of the qat trade was influenced by (and contributed to) development of roads and introduction/expansion of motor vehicles to remote areas of the African nations examined herein. While it may be unfair to suggest these nations were better off without such technology, environmentally speaking, this may be the case. Road construction and auto-pollution could have severe impacts on the local environment and habitat. Qat trade continues to be served by being able to reach city markets in a timely manner, before the leaves lose their potency. As the demand increases, so will the methods by which qat is transported. Daily, qat is flown into Somalia, Djibouti and regions in Ethiopia, among other nations. The construction of airstrips, and the control of the flights importing qat, was an area for conflict in Somalia, and may be so for other nations.
F. Conclusion

Advocates of qat contend that Yemenis are not lazy, there is just not enough work to be done. Opponents have issued a request to the government to extend the work day in an effort to reduce qat consumption. However, at this point, economically, these nations are now nearly dependent on qat trade. Demand seems on a stable increase, suggesting it may be a good market to be in. But critics express concerns that these poverty-stricken nations in Africa are trading most heavily in a non-food non-international product. The nations are not actively working their way out of debt with qat, but seem to actually be propelling themselves further into the hole. As they continue to lose their share of the coffee market, they will coincidentally lose their share of foreign investment and currency. Further, the reckless pursuit of qat may lead to soil erosion and destruction of other natural habitats to facilitate and expedite the transport and distribution of qat. Finally, the politically unstable nature of these nations and the emerging qat-cartels, especially in war-torn nations like Somalia, give rise to concerns of potential violent conflict over production and distribution of qat.

By abdi ( - on Thursday, December 04, 2003 - 3:35 pm: Edit Post

this is totally false report based on unfounded stories.have ever compared ,qat, beer , liqour, oter hard drugs and coffe itself.COFFE and QAT have same effect on human body.
Iam not a user of Qat but I do'nt totally agree your opinion.For example the amount you are saying is spent on Qat is more lower then the amount you indicated in your report. Qat does'nt cause any fight or disturbance at all. Qat is nothing more coffeeor never mention in your story that you have made ascientific research. you didn't even show one example proofing that purpose.

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