With less rain, farmers in Kenya quit food crops to cash in on legal drug

The government has struggled to come up with ways to make traditional farming more appealing as farmers in the north turn to growing miraa, a legal narcotic that needs little water and has a steady demand.

Ariel Zirulnick
Omar Kutara, head of the Smallscale Farmers' Forum in the northern Kenya town of Marsabit, walks among the miraa plants on his farm. Miraa, a stimulant that is legal in Kenya, has replaced many traditional food crops because it can thrive in the increasingly dry climate that other crops cannot survive.

When Omar Kutara’s grandfather tended the family farm outside Marsabit, it was covered with fruit trees, and rows of barley and wheat waved in the wind. But today, the stiff branches of miraa plants cover a third of that space.

About two-thirds of Marsabit’s farmland is used for miraa, a plant chewed as a narcotic, according to Edin Ibrahim Yussuf, a local project coordinator with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), which also does agricultural work. Miraa arrived from Ethiopia in the 1980s.

Years of water shortages have prompted farmers in this patch of northern Kenya, one of the only places in the arid region that can support agriculture, to abandon food crops in favor of miraa (known as khat in the Arab world). The hardy crop has flourished here.  

While the government wants to curb miraa’s displacement of food crops, farmers welcome the steady income provided by the legal drug, used for stimulant and medicinal purposes. But the financial gain comes at a cost for the community: less local food in the markets and more miraa use among youth as it becomes more readily available. And with low rainfall levels believed to be the new normal, the trends are going to be hard to reverse. 

Mr. Kutara, head of Marsabit’s Smallscale Farmers’ Forum, is unapologetic for giving up on the lush fruit trees that once grew here. He says they were not only suffering from drought, but repeatedly destroyed by elephants that roam freely in this part of the country. Light on labor and water, and left alone by the pests and animals that wreak havoc on other crops, miraa is considered a sure thing. 

“We thought of something drought and wildlife cannot attack,” he says. “It brings in money. It can make our children go to school.” 

Kutara still harvests subsistence crops of maize, beans, vegetables, and grains, but many of the farmers he represents have devoted their land entirely to miraa.

“The market is always ready,” Mr. Yussuf says. “Even when the government tried to reduce or stop production, they couldn’t. There is no alternative source of income the government can give farmers.” 

A bankable resource

Demand for the addictive leaf is consistent, as is the yield. Farmers plant miraa once, right after a rainfall, and then largely leave it alone. They can harvest six months later and continue to do so every few months, year-round. Sellers buy miraa from farmers for a little more than $3 a bundle, enough to last a chewer a day, and sell each for about $6.50. Kutara says that in a year, he makes about $1,975 from one acre of miraa.

In contrast, an acre of land can yield about 10 bags of maize in a year, each of which holds about 90 kilograms. With a kilogram selling for between 10 and 45 cents, the most a farmer can make off an acre is about $400, sometimes a bit more with other crops planted in between. 

“The community demand is always there. People are always chewing,” Yussuf says of Marsabit's miraa market, which remains largely local and unaffected by tumbling national demand.

The sale of the drug has also changed social dynamics in the community. Families have indisputably improved their lives on the back of the drug, particularly the women who do the bulk of the selling.

“They have bank accounts. They are educating their kids. They have microfinance options … you see women building houses, women marrying younger men … anything she wants, she gets,” Yussuf says. “She can leave [her husband] and many have done that.”

But there is the sinister side of it as well – climbing rates of youth chewing, plus the chewing of miraa to stave off hunger among those families not riding the miraa wave.

Promoting traditional farming 

Marsabit used to export surplus food to nearby Moyale, Isiolo, and Wajir. Youssef Kure Mohamud, a shop owner in Korr, about 100 kilometers southwest of Marsabit, stocked his shop with produce from here. Now he sources from Meru, and some of the Marsabit traders are beginning to do that as well.

The government and organizations, like ILRI, are struggling to come up with ways to make traditional farming appealing. The government has given out subsidized seeds and loaned farmers machinery like tractors to encourage more food crops. It has also tried to bolster small businesses with microfinance loans.

But those interventions are fairly new. Pastoralists, herders who make up about three-quarters of the population, have received far more attention because of their dominance in the local economy. There was little money allocated for helping the farmers, Yussuf says.

But he believes that without a steadier, more plentiful supply of water, no intervention is going to prevent miraa from pushing out most other food production. 

Drought has been battering Marsabit for decades – the first major one remembered by today’s farmers hit in 1973, when Kutara was in primary school. The next severe one came a decade later. Since the 1990s, they’ve come more and more often. 

Before the drought in 1973, Marsabit used to get an average of 750 to 800 millimeters of rain a year, Yussuf says. The last few years, rainfall has averaged 300 millimeters a year.

Marsabit County’s agricultural ministry does not keep annual records of the most of the harvests, including miraa, but Yussuf estimates grain yields have decreased by a bit more than half in the last 15 years. 

Farmers and agricultural experts also place some of the blame on famine relief. The 1984 drought was devastating in northern Kenya. The population became almost entirely dependent on food aid, Yussuf says. It decreased demand and gave farmers little incentive to grow crops after the drought ended.

“When you just dump grain … the entire infrastructure for food production suffers. This is what was going on in Marsabit for a long time. People have just more or less said ‘Forget maize production. We can’t compete with [Food for the Hungry, a famine relief organization]’ so they just grow a cash crop,” says Paul Goldsmith, an agricultural researcher in Meru, Kenya’s main miraa producing region.

Some farmers in Meru have been convinced to intersperse miraa plants with food crops and trees. That so-called integrated system is far more resilient than Marsabit’s increasingly monocrop practices, Dr. Goldsmith says. 

Kutara has heard all of the alternatives, and challenges anyone to find something that can help the farmers he represents the way miraa has, especially in the water-uncertain future.

“It’s a drug, but we are making our living off of this,” he says. “The desert is encroaching."

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