The Knock-On Effect: UK Khat Ban and its Implications for Kenya

The United Kingdom’s controversial decision to ban khat, the popular herbal stimulant used by thousands of Africans in Britain, is set to have enormous socio-economic implications for regions in Kenya, the world's largest producer.

The use of Khat -- or miraa as it is called in Africa -- has in the past year become a focus point for UK Home Secretary Theresa May who has continually argued that the plant should be classified as an illicit narcotic. May argues that khat poses a health risk to communities, and that due to its illegality in neighboring European countries, the UK is at risk of becoming a regional trafficking hub if it continues to permit it. 

As a result of these highly suspect claims, May has drawn the ire of domestic and international critics who have accused her of ignoring a wealth of scientific evidence showing that khat is no more dangerous than a strong cup of coffee. Additionally, certain MPs have highlighted that the government is set to lose £12.8 million per year in tax revenue that the import of khat brings.

Despite the cogency of the counter-argument, though, the government won the approval from the UK House of Commons on March 31 to move ahead with the banning of khat.

While the effects of the ban in the UK will be unfortunate, the move has far greater implications for the economic development of large communities in Kenya, the world's largest producer of khat. There, the khat trade is a multi-million dollar export business that guarantees employment and economic stability in large areas of the country. With up to 60 tonnes exported to London each week, the UK represents the biggest market for Kenyan khat traders who have already been forced to abandon their commercial relations with several countries where the herb was made illegal.

When the ban is enacted, thousands of Kenyan farmers and traders are expected to lose their jobs and add to an alarming employment rate which stands at 40 percent based on recent figures. Yet, while the impending consequences will be drastic, there has been a complete lack of movement from the development community to address the issue by offering Kenyan khat producers alternatives. As Professor Julia Buxton, a drug policy expert at the Central European University's School of Public Policy, told TalkingDrugs:

"In order to prevent the negative impacts on East Africa's khat farmers and also on UK security relating to an illicit khat trade, UK development assistance should have been engaged at an early stage in mitigating the consequences of the ban in cultivating areas. The lack of responsiveness reflects an evident absence of scenario planning around the drugs and development nexus."

Kenyan authorities have tried to fight back on the issue in an effort to protect domestic producers. For one, in 2013 the Kenyan government helped fund a lawsuit against Theresa May after a khat trader initiated the case claiming that the ban breaches the human rights of consumers, while more recently, several Kenyan MPs have threatened to put forward a motion in parliament aimed at ejecting British citizens who own farms in the khat-growing region of Meru. “If they cannot allow us to access their market then they should also be willing to let go of tracts of land that could be occupied by the Meru people”, MP Florence Kajuju  told the BBC. However, it seems that these actions will have little impact in tackling the developmental consequences.

Of course, as with any form of prohibition, the market will not disappear, but rather simply move underground. While this will mean some Kenyan farmers will be able to continue cultivating khat, they will be doing so at potentially far greater risk. With no legal supply chain from source to market, producers may be left vulnerable to black market traders, or even criminal groups looking to fill the void. This could have serious implications for both their economic well-being -- one need only look at coca growers in the Andean region and the comparatively miniscule amount they receive for producing the leaf compared to the final product -- and their security.

The absurdity of the UK government's actions on this issue are best summed up by Kojo Koram, who rightly declares it to be "a failed solution to a non-existent problem." Sadly, it seems this "failed solution" is about to create a wealth of problems that will ripple far outside of the United Kingdom.