Saturday, April 25, 2015

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East Africa's 'Natural High'

A porter carries a load of miraa from a small informal market to the main market where it is packed to be transported.

Ibrahim in his single room at ’99 Lodge’ on Maua’s main street, where he has lived alongside other miraa traders, most of them far from home and sending remittances, for the past 9 years.

A porter at the main market in Maua.

A trader relaxes with tea at the end of the night.

The sacks of miraa are compacted as much as possible for the journey north.

Miraa growing in an intriguing formation on the slopes of a small family shamba. The red stalks growing upwards are the chewable parts which are harvested about every 28 days.

Women farmers picking miraa on a family shamba just outside Maua, where miraa is the most profitable of a range of crops which also includes avocados, bananas and pumpkins.

The miraa trade in Maua, Kenya, is profitable, legal, and controversial.
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Photo Credit: Touko Sipilainen

In Maua, Kenya, the working day begins at 3pm.  It continues at a feverish pace until night falls. Markets are springing up along the roadside in this Kenyan mountain town, simultaneously impromptu and urgent in their operation. Their urgency is no surprise, considering that the commodity bought and sold here must go from source to consumer in 24 hours. Miraa (also known as khat) is the town’s pride – indigenous to the area, the plant has been cultivated on a mass scale since the 1970s to feed a growing market in Somalia, northern Kenya, and across the Somali diaspora. Its popularity is due to the fact that it is a simple and effective natural stimulant: the stalks of the plant are chewed in fairly large quantities to produce a coffee-like alertness.

Miraa is considered by some to be destructive and harmful – reportedly producing nationally institutionalised lethargy in Yemen. Yet there is something overwhelmingly positive and intriguing about its place of production in Kenya, the small town of Maua. Many locals are also avid chewers, and it seems this wide-awake mentality has translated to the atmosphere of the town. It is felt immediately as one steps off the bus into a place whose remoteness is not reflected in its fame as the ‘natural high’ factory of Africa.

The town’s uniqueness also stems from the otherwise unlikely cultural encounters taking place as the Somali community, who come to trade back to their homeland, have mixed with the local Meru growers and townspeople. ‘We brought business to them – before there was no business here’ – said Ibrahim, a Somali-Kenyan miraa trader who sends his daily load to mainly female market traders in his home town of Mandera, between the Somali and Ethiopian borders. It is thirty years since the first traders arrived and there is no other business - ‘No jobs, only miraa’. This is evident passing small mountain villages around Maua, where groups of young men sit seemingly idly by the roadside, rushing towards the occasional passing car clutching their wares, most likely cut that morning from their family shamba, or small farm. A local shopkeeper, who sells the sacks used to transport miraa, offers charming proof of its infiltration into basic economic exchanges: a bunch is typically offered by men to their prospective in-laws, as the first stage of a dowry. This town thrives on what might be elsewhere be called drug dealing, with the majority of residents involved in one way or another with growing, packing, transporting, buying, selling – and, of course, chewing.

Ibrahim can be found at the roadside markets without fail each afternoon, doing business with local growers and their middlemen, who rush huge bunches of miraa to the town on motorcycles. The men gather in small congregations, buyers checking the quality and grade of the miraa, which is then wrapped tightly in banana leaves to keep it fresh for the long journey ahead. Voices and hands are raised as prices are agreed, with the most basic variety fetching around 100-150 Ksh (about $1.3-1.8) per kilo. This lower grade is the one that is sent the furthest – to Northern Kenya and Somalia – as it is the most durable. The sellers in Somalia make huge profits. The same bunch of miraa that earned the grower 100 shillings (Ksh) at its source can earn its seller in Somalia eight times as much. Higher grades cost far more, and are sent to Nairobi and London, where as a prized luxury they can fetch even higher prices.

Nightly circus

With the prices agreed and the miraa packed up, Ibrahim’s porters transport it up the street to the main market where the orderly chaos begins.

The nature of the plant itself creates this frenetic rush to get it to its destination – it is only fresh for chewing, its sole purpose, for two to three days. Each vehicle standing by the market is marked for a specific destination, from Nairobi’s Wilson Airport to Mogadishu, and the drivers and owners of these vehicles are a crucial link in the chain. The sellers pay the transporters in cash according to the number of bags they want to send, and are liable for any disruption. Ibrahim explained the frequent problems with the Land Cruisers that take the loads north overnight through sometimes impassable roads– ‘in the rainy season there are a lack of vehicles and many accidents. If a car breaks down, there is no help. That whole load of miraa will be ruined, you can’t sell it’. There is also an excess of miraa during the rainy season, making it cheaper. Although everything is rigidly organised, Ibrahim’s worries make it clear that the transportation process is a risky business, and one in which the sellers invest their entire livelihoods.

The vehicles must leave promptly in order to arrive by morning, where the loads can be on the market by 8am. Ibrahim described how the trucks are mobbed by desperate chewers as they arrive in Mandera – ‘they like miraa too much’ – and this goes some way in explaining the traders’ hard-headed efficiency, particularly in the packing of the trucks, which looks like mayhem, but is actually highly structured, each bag going in a specific place according to which seller will be receiving it; after each layer the whole load is compacted down as much as possible by a band of jumping men.

The night session

Once the Land Cruisers have sped off into the night, Ibrahim sorts his accounts, paying a clerk, porters and transporters. He will receive his money by the telephone transfer service M-Pesa by the next morning, so for now he relaxes at his lodgings with his own miraa stash and sweet spicy tea, keen to give us ‘an idea about miraa’ now that his unusual daily schedule is over. Friends and colleagues, Meru and Somali alike, join him in his cosy room for the nightly chewing session, which will typically end at around 7am. Abuja (‘Uncle’), as he is known by this band of associates, is an avid fan – ‘When you are chewing miraa you don’t become sleepy and you can’t feel you are alone – it gives you some comfort’. He lives in a tiny room alone in order to send the majority of his earnings back to his family in Nairobi. Having been trading for the past nine years, Ibrahim has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the different species of miraa, the market for them, and the transportation process. Giza is high quality and is ‘soft and marketable’: 10 bunches cost around 7000Ksh. Next is Kangeta, with much longer and thicker stalks:  one kilo contains only 15-20, whereas for Giza one kilo contains 200-250. Mathenge is lower quality and sold in remote and dry areas. Alele is the very highest quality and is much rarer than the other varieties. This is only sold within the Maua area.

Young upstarts

The international demand for these choice cuts means that the tiny town buzzes with an entrepreneurial spirit that is clear in the lively eyes of the barefooted farmers, who bargain hard, and their smartly suited Somali buyers, who bargain harder. Although the two communities co-exist quite happily for the most part, there is a hint of tension in comments about Meru being ‘barefoot bushmen’ and the Somali traders' slightly bullying bargaining style. However, in a continent famed for its swollen and inactive young population, the sight of ambitious self-starters on both sides of the negotiations is encouraging. Mohamed, in his early twenties, has just started sending one bag a day, making a 400 Ksh profit, and hopes to be sending up to 20 within a couple of years as his reputation grows. Somewhere outside Maua a young farmer with a rasta scarf tied around his head, simultaneously chewing miraa and smoking ‘bangi’ (marijuana), shows off his newly acquired plot of land, brimming with high quality miraa trees. He recently bought four acres of Kangeta-producing land for $900 and hopes to make large returns. When he is asked about his drug of choice, miraa comes out on top.

Unaffected by the persistent Kenyan problem of drought, and related dips in the economy, miraa also comes out on top of an unpredictable economic outlook. James, a student of the University of Nairobi whose large family farm just outside Maua produces large quantities of miraa, explains the perennial profitability of this product, and hints that the capitalist spirit in Kenya is the reason for its legality here. He contrasts this to the traditionally more ‘socialist’ outlook of neighbouring Tanzania, where it is outlawed (yet still popular). Is Tanzania denying a brilliant trading opportunity? James’s view is clear at least.

Downsides to the high

As with many booming markets, one wonders whether the social and health costs outweigh the benefits so evident in Maua. We wondered about so-called ‘khat syndrome’ one hears about in relation to Yemen, where it is used by the majority of the population. Concerned about this, the Kenyan National Campaign Against Drug Abuse Authority and an American research institute have said that miraa causes ‘high blood pressure, mental problems, uncontrolled emotions, and that extensive use may even lead to impotence’. Other effects include excitation, rapid talking, restlessness, poor concentration, major memory loss, mouth diseases and insomnia.

When asked about the compatibility of miraa with Muslim religious beliefs, given the fact that it is predominantly chewed by this community as a substitute for alcohol, Ibrahim regrets that it is not officially sanctioned by the Qur’an because of the effects of long-term use on the body, pointing to his blackened teeth, which like most chewers’ have seen better days. Its dangers are also evident from the occasional lost-looking over-user, immediately recognisable by the green foam around his mouth and startled, bloodshot eyes.

Back to the Rush

Leaving Maua mid-afternoon, as the daily rush begins again, questions remained, resulting from these more unsavoury observations. Can this 'kind of drug' ever be more than an informal (yet highly structured), marginal economy? According to a report by Michela Wrong at, ‘the government's very lack of involvement is the reason the sector has bucked the troubled trend of other agricultural sectors in this corruption-blighted country'. As such, the trade is the perfect example of an unregulated, stand-alone economic system. The only hint of officialdom was two municipal government officers who came to the main market briefly and unenthusiastically to check whether traders have paid their taxes. The benefits to the many different sections of the local population seem predicated on the freedom allowed by this lack of regulation.

As he hands us spare bunches of fresh miraa at the end of the day Ibrahim makes sure we are listening: ‘Please note that no chemicals are added to the miraa . It is chewed directly after harvesting from the tree’. Debate aside, there is something pure and uncomplicated about miraa, reflected deftly in this declaration. While other articles report on incidences of violence in Maua caused by business rivalry and theft of crops, we saw no evidence of this in three days there. The only negativity encountered was from some of the traders who were worried that we were from the UN, or spying on them somehow, as well as from people who were suspicious of our motives for photographs. For the most part people were positive and welcoming. While interested to know outsiders’ opinions on whether miraa is a drug, locals were keener to explain its myriad varieties and the feelings they produce, as well as to outline with pride the many links in the trading chain that make it possible for their product to be so rapidly transported from a farm on the alpine-tropical slopes around Maua to a living room somewhere in Somalia, Nairobi or London. Then they’ll make you try it.


The photographer for this article was Touko Sipilainen. More of his work can be found on his website.

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really interesting insights. also i like the k-hat.

Very interesting article,I really like the fact that you gave different points of view on the miraa. Made me think about the use of coca in the Andes a bit.
Great pictures too!