Resolving the khat conundrum: when a profitable crop has downsides

Alex Oduor and Malesu Maimbo, water engineers from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), talk with Khat farmers in Embu. Khat cultivation is severely impacting water availability yet is lucrative for farmers. Photo D Odhiambo/ICRAF

Alex Oduor and Malesu Maimbo, water engineers from the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), talk with Khat farmers in Embu. Khat cultivation is severely impacting water availability yet is lucrative for farmers. Photo D Odhiambo/ICRAF

With European markets closed to the khat grown in one Kenyan county, khat grown in another county is making inroads into coffee, tea and forest. Environmental damage is escalating. Fortunately, researchers from the World Agroforestry Centre have a plan.


The counties of Embu and Meru lie on the eastern slopes of Mt Kenya and are agriculturally and economically bound by khat. The flowering shrub has been highly profitable in both counties for the last 30 years.

Khat is indigenous to the Horn of Africa and Arabian Penisula, where khat chewing is a valued custom. Grown by the forebears of farmers in Meru today, its cultivation rose exponentially on and around Mt Kenya in the early 1990s as people from Somalia dispersed across East Africa and Europe, creating a diaspora.

Khat is different in the two counties, however. Embu’s khat (known there as muguka) is grown mostly in drier lowland areas, is increasingly irrigated and is almost entirely sold in Kenya. Users chew the freshly-plucked buds and soft leaves. According to the World Health Organization, ‘The chewing of khat leaves releases chemicals structurally related to amphetamines, which give the chewer a mild high that some say is comparable to drinking strong coffee’.

In contrast, the variety grown in Meru (known there as miraa) requires higher rainfall. Users chew the twig rather than the leaves. This endows Meru khat with a longer shelf life than khat from Embu and therefore a strong market further way: in Europe. It was this market that closed in 2013 when, after considerable debate, including within the Somali community, khat was banned in the UK and Netherlands. This dealt a blow to Meru’s economy and rendered more attractive the cultivation of khat in Embu. Today the markets for Meru khat are mostly in Somalia and Djibouti.

Looming dilemma

Concerned about the khat economy after the ban, in April 2016 the Kenyan government injected KSh 1 billion (USD 10 million) into its value chain and the parliament amended the Crops Act 2013 to confer cash-crop status on khat. Then in June 2016, Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, commissioned a task force to identify opportunities for the khat industry. Task-force roles include suggesting institutional and administrative structures for the khat value chain and additional farming enterprises for khat farmers and ‘research on miraa agronomy, variety improvement, product development and value addition’, according to a gazette notice reported in the local media.

Questions remain about sustainability, however. At present, the greatest concern is Embu khat, which is expanding into ecological territories that belong to other crops, particularly coffee, and into the natural vegetation of the mountain, one of Kenya’s five key water towers.

‘Communities appear to have relegated environmental conservation to concentrate on khat’, observes Jonathan Muriuki, the Kenya representative of ICRAF The World Agroforestry Centre. ‘This is damaging biodiversity and watersheds and increasing carbon emissions’.

'We need an integrated natural resources management plan for Khat', says ICRAF’s Muriuki.

‘We need an integrated natural resources management plan for Khat’, says ICRAF’s Muriuki.

A farm in Mbita reveals the crisis. The family relies on the single enterprise of khat. The shrubs give an air of greenness; and the returns appear astoundingly high. Farmer reports that are yet to be confirmed by scientific study indicate that a half-acre of khat can bring in over USD 2000 a month.

‘We harvest continuously’, says farmer Martin Nyaga.

However, the business may promise less than it seems at first glance. The cost of labour – leaves are plucked at night – and USD 70 a week for a tanker of water from Embu Water and Sewerage Company reduce profits. And further scrutiny reveals erosion, loss of tree cover, and few food crops.

‘If current practices persist’, says Muriuki, ‘the only land suitable for tea will be the forests, current tea areas will switch to coffee, coffee zones will switch to khat, and khat areas will become barren soil’.


To prevent damage to the long-term development of Embu and Meru and downstream users of the water from Mt Kenya, ‘we need a science-based strategy’, says the agroforester.  He and colleagues have conceptualized a project called AMANI: agroforestry complimenting Catha edulis for sustainable agriculture, nutrition and incomes. Catha edulis is the Latin name for khat. AMANI means peace in Swahili. The idea is to utilize agroforestry and other innovations to build natural and social capital in khat growing zones.

AMANI is not about eliminating the crop, stresses Muriuki, but stabilizing its frontier. ‘The ecosystem cannot sustain indefinite production, and the market will soon peak. We want to avoid farmers uprooting crops like coffee and harming their soil and water, only for the khat industry to fail’.

A team from ICRAF met with stakeholders in Embu town. ‘We want a connectivity of purpose so that everybody has a say’, explains ICRAF social economist Joseph Tanui.

County government involvement

Opening the meeting, Josphat Kithumbu said, ‘Embu County is committed to supporting this noble initiative that seeks to transform livelihoods’ and lauded ICRAF’s aim to ‘cushion khat growing communities against climate change… A sustainable agroforestry remedy for khat cultivation begins with local and landscape implications’, stated the County Executive Committee member for Lands, Water, Environment and Natural Resources. He challenged ICRAF to develop a sustainable land management plan to support government policy on khat.

The workshop brought together participants from religious-based and farmer organizations, saving societies, and county government among others. Photo by D. Odhiambo/ICRAF

The workshop brought together people from religious and farmers’ organizations, saving societies, and the county government, among others. Photo: World Agroforestry Centre/Danyell Odhiambo

Responding, Muriuki said, ‘Agroforestry is the deliberate integration of trees with crops and livestock on farms. Production is optimized for the family. Currently khat is displacing trees and other crops, which reduces biodiversity, which reduces resilience. Agroforestry can stabilize the system and create livelihoods for segments of the population not benefiting from khat. AMANI will root for a consultative research-in-development approach to pursue policies and practices for farms dominated by the plant’.

Women and khat farming

Participant Charity Igoki, who has farmed khat for the past 14 years, said that it had allowed her to contribute Ksh 2000 (USD 20) every month to a savings society.

‘Khat has economically empowered women’, said the mother of four. ‘With the profits and credit from the savings society, I have provided food and education and a brighter future for my children’.

But major challenges have been the lack of management skills and scarcity of water.

‘We mostly rely on local knowledge and divert piped water meant to irrigate our farms. I would like this addressed’.


ICRAF’s Maimbo Malesu cautioned against technologies that compromise the ecosystem. ‘Sinking boreholes is not the way to obtain a sustainable irrigation. The answer lies in conserving rainwater, the primary source of water’.

He said that irrigation with chlorinated water meant for domestic use salinates the soil. Farmers already observe salty spots at irrigation points after the water evaporates, and sometimes use a local desalination technique: ‘We normally mix the piped [chlorinated] water with wood ash to reduce acidity’, said Igoki.

Kenya is not the only country struggling with khat. According to one UN report, 27-30% of Yemen’s ground water goes into khat irrigation and the crop is distorting ‘an already fragile economy with farmers ripping out fruit trees and coffee plants. Nearly 60% of the land cultivated for cash crops is devoted to khat’.

Next steps

AMANI may offer a model for other countries. Feedback from the fora – another was held in Maua town in Meru in December 2015 – will fine tune it.

‘Our vision is that after five years, we would see farms with rainwater harvesting and nutrition-informed production – vegetables, fruit and fodder trees – and coffee or tea alongside and not displaced by khat. We also want strong farmer institutions that engage with government, better incomes from improved marketing, and capacity development for women and youth’.

The last will sit well with Hussain Ageely of the University of Jazan in Saudi Arabia. In the Journal of Community Medicine, the dean and Chair of Internal Medicine describes khat’s ‘traditionally positive role’ and ‘pleasurable central stimulant properties’ that are ‘commonly believed to improve the capacity for work and counteract fatigue’. But he stresses that efforts to address it must prioritize community development. Excessive use can put ‘pressure on the community’ and cause dental caries, oral cancers and cardiovascular risk’.

UNEP safeguards expert, Yanae Yi, advises economic analysis to capture externalities and compare the short-term benefits of khat cultivation with the cost of converting the landscape.

‘Full economic analysis is often difficult and expensive, but I think the commonsensical judgment on what we gain versus lose should be thought through before making the policy decision’, she says.



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ICRAF The World Agroforestry Centre is one of the 15 members of the CGIAR.

We would like to thank all donors who support research in development through their contributions to the CGIAR Fund.'

Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda -- Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has over 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a graduate certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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