Green Gold

How a small Kenyan town developed the most efficient agricultural industry on the planet.

Young boys recuperating at the hospital from cuts received during fights over miraa

MAUA, Kenya—Two boys lie sunning themselves on the lawn of Maua Methodist Hospital. Both sport identical injuries: Their right hands are wrapped in white bandages. It’s the kind of injury you’d receive defending yourself from a knife or machete attack, and it’s one the nurse has seen countless times before.

“We have a lot of cutting here,” he acknowledges. “I’ve never actually done a survey, but I’d guess half the cases in casualty are related to miraa.” He gives his name, hesitates, then asks me not to use it. “We don’t like to talk too loud here about miraa.”

His reticence makes sense. Maua, described as “Kenya’s fastest-growing town,” is the hub of a highly contentious industry. Perched above the blue hills of Meru, Maua is one of the country’s main producers of miraa, known internationally as qat, the green twig chewed for its amphetaminelike properties. No one in Maua wants to be caught saying or doing anything that could threaten the future of the “green gold” that has brought money and jobs to what would otherwise be the remote, chilly fringes of Mount Kenya.

We are not, my journalist friend and I soon realize, entirely welcome visitors. Driving through Muringene market, where local farmers go to sell neatly stacked bundles of miraa wrapped in banana leaves, we can see the traders’ sudden apprehension at a glimpse of white faces. They relax, slightly, when we explain that we are neither American nor from the United Nations. Thanks in part to its associations with Somalia’s trigger-happy warlords, miraa is banned in the United States. The locals mutter about a rumored U.N. report, which could, they say, call for its trade to be controlled.

Sprigs of miraa

Harvested from what resemble knobbly fruit trees, miraa has been a feature of life here for generations. Chewing the soft bark peeled from the shoots, releasing cathine and cathinone—chemicals that can cause anything from benevolent euphoria to twitchy paranoia—is woven into the fabric of daily existence, part of Meru’s distinct ethnic identity. Traditionally, a girl hoping to marry would tell her father her intentions while offering him a miraa twig. If he took it, he accepted her choice of suitor. A suitor visiting his in-laws for the first time was expected to turn up with a bundle of miraa as a gift. Presenting someone with miraa was a way of apologizing for a slight, chewing together the natural seal on a business deal.

But while all this remains true, today miraa-chewing is far more than a picturesque local custom. The big consumer markets for miraa have always lain to the north of Kenya, in Somalia, Djibouti, Ethiopia, and the Middle East. When Somalia disintegrated as a nation-state in the early 1990s, the Somali community, with its miraa-chewing demands, was scattered across the globe, and traditional trade routes were disrupted. Maua came into its own.

Hundreds of Somalis moved into the town, so many that they built themselves a mosque. With colored wraps knotted around their waists, they are easily distinguished from the locals. They linked up local farmers with the international market, ensuring that Maua’s miraa reached the Somali diaspora in London, Amsterdam, Rome, and North America. That development coincided with plummeting prices for coffee, Maua’s other main product. Coffee farmers found that miraa—which needs very little tending—was not only far easier to grow than coffee, it also gave a far higher return for their money.

A Maua man picking miraa from a tree in his backyard

And so, while the Kenyan economy has languished in the doldrums, miraa has boomed, impervious to national trends and international disapproval. Kenya’s National Agency for the Campaign Against Drug Abuse may have called for a ban, but locals insist miraa is no more dangerous than alcohol, no more addictive than coffee. But then, they would say that, because there’s big money being made in Maua, which has both advantages—“there’s no petty crime here because everyone has money” we were repeatedly told—and a darker side: the high number of “cuttings” when traders squabble over prices and turf. On a bad day, cutting escalates to hand amputation, for in Maua, there is no more serious crime than being caught stealing a man’s miraa, his hope for the future.

All those involved in the industry agree that more miraa is grown, picked, and traded in Kenya today than ever before. Domestic consumption, they say, now extends beyond traditional miraa-chewing communities, with even ethnic groups with no history of use reported to be taking it up. Outside Kenya, Tanzania has become a big new market, and the Somali diaspora’s appetites seem insatiable. But, bizarrely, no accurate figures are available to quantify the trend. The reason? The Kenyan government does not classify miraa as a cash crop, so the authorities ignore it, neither tracking its sale nor offering support to farmers. Cynics might say that 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.

Miraa is certainly a striking example of business ingenuity rising to meet formidable challenges. The chemicals that give chewers their high start breaking down as soon as the twigs are picked, so time is of the essence. Somehow, an industry with no coordinating body, whose players are mainly small farmers or modest middlemen, manages to get tens of thousands of neatly packed kibundas (bundles) of fresh miraa loaded onto the “miraa jets”—the Toyota pickups that line Maua’s main drag; down the long, potholed road to Nairobi’s Wilson Airport; crammed aboard the notoriously overloaded flights; and onto the coffee tables of expectant chewers in foreign capitals in under two days. “This is a business which has always operated informally, in which accounts are kept on the back of cigarette packets, yet it’s the most efficient agricultural industry on the planet,” says Paul Goldsmith, a Meru-based development expert. “The commodity has a 48-hour shelf life, but it goes all over the world.”

A sign at the entrance to Maua’s main hospital

Goldsmith, who believes international hostility to miraa is based on ignorance and myth rather than common sense, fears miraa may not be allowed to enjoy its freedom much longer. Local politicians concerned about the nagging issue of legitimacy are already talking about pressing the Kenyan government to officially recognise miraa as a cash crop. Certainly, in a country whose grasping political elite has always shown a talent for latching onto profit-making ventures and sucking them dry, the lack of regulation surrounding the trade seems an anomaly or an oversight. And, of course, should miraa escape Kenya’s bureaucratically minded legislators, another, possibly far greater, danger looms ahead: that dreaded U.N. report.