Geopolitics

Drug Trade In Africa: How The Queen Of Khat Got So Rich

For many Africans khat is a stimulant drug that also stills hunger pangs. But the world’s biggest seller of khat doesn’t fit the typical profile of a drug dealer. Indeed, throughout much of the continent it is legal.

Khat leaves (CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Khat leaves (CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture)
Philipp Hedemann

For many Africans khat is a stimulant drug that also stills hunger pangs. But the world's biggest seller of khat doesn't fit the typical profile of a drug dealer.

In Somaliland, not a lot works. Somaliland is a republic in the north of Somalia, which, although it declared itself a sovereign state, is not internationally recognized as such. But one thing you can count on here: Suhura Ismail's trucks, driven at breakneck speed, arriving as regular as clockwork every night on the unpaved roads. The trucks are delivering khat, a drug that is mostly forbidden in Europe.

In Somaliland, on the other hand, the business is legal – and booming. Up to 80% of all men in the tiny country in the Horn of Africa are addicted to khat. Suhura Ismail says she herself has never tried chewing the bitter leaves. But it has made her rich, and in her homeland, Ethiopia, she is a highly respected entrepreneur.

"I was just voted Businesswoman of the Year," she says. "And then I got a bill for back taxes amounting to 48 million Birr (1.9 million euros.) But we'll figure something out. I have good connections with the Prime Minister."

The 49-year-old mother of ten is the biggest khat dealer in the world. And although she does have a flashy gold tooth, there is none of the usual baggage about her that usually attends international dealers: no body guards, no fake names, no fear of other drug cartels or the police -- though the tax man is a bit of a bother.

Then again, this Ethiopian woman would not describe herself as a drug dealer. The devout Muslim sees herself simply as an entrepreneur. Her family business sells between 30,000 and 40,000 kilos of khat each day.

In the 1990s, when coffee prices fell, many farmers in Ethiopia switched to growing khat. Since then, the drug has become one of the country's major export goods – and the government of the world's 12th poorest country wants its share. Ismail brings in foreign currency, or at least she does when she pays what she owes the state, which is 30% of her profits.

Ismail's parents sold khat at a small street stand in Jijiga, about an hour from Ethiopia's border with Somalia. As a girl, Suhura worked in her parents' business and learned the ropes. But it was not a particularly profitable business back then, and nobody was getting rich until Suhura turned 18 and married her Somali husband, Mohammed Ismail Tarabi. Together, they started exporting khat to Somalia. Most of the men in war-torn Somalia are addicted to khat too, but khat bushes – which can grow to as high as three meters -- don't do well in a country where there is so little rainfall.

The best khat grows in the highlands of eastern Ethiopia, around Awaday. In the early morning hours there, business is at its peak, with women selling the leaves, and men toting large bundles of them to pick-up trucks waiting with the motor running. Most of the vehicles belong to Ismail – she owns 40. As soon as the back of the truck is loaded up, the drivers step on the gas pedal. They are all chewing on thick wads of khat.

Chewing away one's life possessions

Khat is a stimulant. At first, it has a very bitter taste, but after about a half hour – just around when traces of greenish foam start appearing in the corners of a chewer's mouth – the effects of natural amphetamines cathinone and cathine kick in.

Pangs of hunger subside, the khat chewer feels lightly euphoric, yet alert and focused, also talkative. However, to maintain this high, the user has to keep adding new leaves to the wad. Some men have literally chewed away all their family possessions sold to pay for their habit. In Ethiopia, a clump of khat costs between one and eight euros. Workers often earn less than one euro a day.

Hussein has that full cheek that characterizes a khat user. "I work hard, every day," he says, "which is why I need khat. It gives me strength." A khat farmer in Awaday, Hussein owns about a thousand khat bushes. "My father grows grain, fruit and vegetables. I only grow khat, because it brings in more money," he says, shoving a few more leaves into his mouth.

Chew too much of the stuff, though, and you become psychologically dependent on it; you can suffer from anxiety, depression, sleeplessness. Hussein is unusual, in that he will admit this; most people in Ethiopia will not. "Khat makes you lethargic. And you don't feel like having sex," he says. He has forbidden his four children to chew khat because "they don't have to work as hard as I do."

The whole of Somaliland (like Yemen on the other side of the Gulf of Aden) falls into a deep khat-induced lethargy during the afternoon hours. In neighboring Somalia, the drug, which is flown in daily, is almost as important as the ammunition that fuels the civil war. When ships are pirated by Somalis, owners make sure to keep the pirates well supplied with khat.

And more and more khat smugglers are being arrested in Europe. "There's hardly a passenger or freight plane that leaves Addis Ababa without some khat on board", says one insider. With often overloaded delivery trucks, khat couriers transport the leaves from Amsterdam, where the drug is legal, to East African immigrants living in Scandinavia.

Suhura Ismail wants nothing to do with this ugly side of the business. "Can I help it if some people can't handle khat? Or that it's illegal in Germany? You don't call your beer brewers drug dealers," says the woman who boasts that she's never touched a drop of alcohol in her life.

The girl who used to hawk khat from a roadside stand is now an entrepreneur with more than 1,000 employees, as well as her own airline, Suhura Airways. "In the world khat trade, Suhura is uncontestably numero uno," says Ephrem Tesema, who wrote a thesis at Basel University on the production, distribution and use of khat. "And in Ethiopia she is thought to control over 50% of the market."

Ultimately, Ismail's great breakthrough was in removing the stigma associated with the drug. "She did a lot of PR, so in Ethiopia now the leaves are just another commercial product," says Tesema.

Suhura Ismail says she would like to expand into Europe, and is hoping that the continent's biggest market, Germany, will legalize the drug. It's a country she's familiar with. When her husband started having trouble with his teeth she flew with him to Frankfurt for dental work. Now, back home, his teeth are again in good shape, and he can return to chewing his daily consumption of the green leaves.

Read the original article in German

Photo - CIAT International Center for Tropical Agriculture

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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