Miraa farmers should ignore politicians, seek alternatives

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By MURITHI MUTIGA

A more sober assessment is that the miraa industry is leading a very precarious existence. A simple decision to ban imports in Somalia, which may not be unthinkable in the next decade or so, would lead to a very hard landing for farmers.

These have been a tough few years for miraa farmers. First, the product was banned from some of the most lucrative markets. The 2012 decision by The Netherlands to criminalise miraa consumption was the first major shock.

This was followed by increased enforcement of anti-miraa laws in the US and in Scandinavian countries and then, most significantly, came the UK decision prohibiting imports.

Miraa farmers have every reason to feel aggrieved by these decisions. First, every single authority in Europe that has imposed a ban admitted that they could find no scientific evidence to support claims that miraa is especially harmful to health.

In Holland, they characterised the decision as a social order issue. An immigration department spokesman said miraa was a threat to society because groups of men gather to chew it and “roam the streets (in a way) perceived as threatening”.

In the United Kingdom, the Home Office (equivalent to an internal security ministry) commissioned its Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to undertake a “thorough and comprehensive scientific review” on the case against miraa.

It found no evidence to support a ban and advised against it. The minister, Theresa May, who is now the UK Prime Minister, went ahead and banned imports anyway, a decision which drew a strong rebuke from the former head of the ACMD, Prof David Nutt:

“Banning khat (miraa) shows contempt for reason and evidence (and) disregard for the sincere efforts of the ACMD … Twice in a decade the government’s expert advisers published reviews showing that the relatively low harms associated with khat cannot justify criminalisation.”

Prof Nutt was right about the fundamental injustice of these arbitrary bans on miraa. I have sympathy for those who point out that excessive miraa consumption has many social harms.

Men – by far the biggest consumers – can sometimes spend too many hours indulging in the habit, lowering productivity and keeping them away from their families. But this is true of every other habit which people take part in without moderation.

END OF THE INDUSTRY

From a scientific point of view, however, there is absolutely no evidence that consumption of miraa is nearly as harmful as cigarettes (which cause a tenth of all disease-related deaths annually, according to the WHO) or alcohol, leave alone cannabis which is openly and legally consumed in Holland.

The bitter truth miraa farmers need to accept, though, is that the boom they have enjoyed from the “green gold” will not last forever.

Miraa is a peculiar substance because it is consumed at a rate of about 90-95 per cent by one group.

All exports go to Somali communities around the world who represent what in market terms they call a monopsony, a situation where there is only one buyer for a product. This is a tricky situation because when that one market is shut down, it spells the end of the industry, as demonstrated in the past week.

The truth is that there is a very strong campaign against the consumption of miraa, particularly among young Somalis.

The ban on miraa in the UK, for example, followed years of lobbying by the London Somali Youth Forum and other groups. In Somalia, there has also been a social movement among younger Somalis complaining about the effects of excessive miraa consumption on the men of Somalia.

All exports go to Somali communities around the world who represent what in market terms they call a monopsony, a situation where there is only one buyer for a product. This is a tricky situation because when that one market is shut down, it spells the end of the industry, as demonstrated in the past. MURITHI MUTIGA

It was interesting to note that the president of Somalia faced a backlash on social media after his decision to lift the temporary ban on flights.

Kenyan politicians have a selfish interest in convincing miraa farmers that the great run they have had for years will continue.

A more sober assessment is that the miraa industry is leading a very precarious existence. A simple decision to ban imports in Somalia, which may not be unthinkable in the next decade or so, would lead to a very hard landing for farmers.

Instead of falling for the political noise around miraa, it would be wiser for farmers, who live on some of the most spectacular, well-watered and fertile lands you will find anywhere, to prepare for the possibility that miraa will not be viable forever.

They should diversify and also explore the possibility of forming strong Saccos to save funds for investment in alternative lines of income, including real estate, just as tea and coffee farmers who earn less but have seemed to prosper more than miraa farmers, have done.

It is a very unpopular thing to say in Meru, but miraa must face up to its structural problem. There is only one market for it. That market may not last forever. Better to prepare for that day now than wait for the eventual shock when the market closes.

mutiganews@gmail.com @mutigam

This article first appeared in Daily Nation, Kenya