Mogadishu — Imports of qat into Mogadishu from Kenya have soared in recent weeks, ever since the British government implemented a ban on the stimulant last month.
Prior to the ban, the United Kingdom was Kenya's biggest export market for qat, known locally as miraa.
Now, Kenyan qat traders have diverted most of their product to Somalia for a fraction of the price, said Habon Sheikh Ali, a qat trader at Mogadishu's KM4 intersection.
"Before qat was banned in the United Kingdom, Mogadishu used to receive between 13 to 15 planes of qat daily, but now there are 23 to 25 planes of qat coming in daily," he told Sabahi. "This has resulted in a decline in qat prices, with each bundle selling for about $5 to $10, while it used to be between $15 and $20 a bundle before."
Each plane brings in 80 sacks of qat, with each sack containing 100 bundles. This means Somalis spend millions of dollars each day on qat brought into the country, Ali said.
Abdirisaq Mohamed Abdirahman, an economist who teaches at Simad University, said the detrimental impact of qat on the Somali economy was twofold.
Not only does qat consumption reduce individuals' personal wealth, it also harms the country's economy as a whole because people who chew qat work fewer hours than those who do not, resulting in a decline in productivity, he said.
"For example, if a person earns $15 a day and spends $10 on qat, that poses a problem for that person and his family as the money is spent in a meaningless manner," Abdirahman told Sabahi.
"It is also harmful to the country's general economy considering the fact that qat is brought into Somalia daily, yet we do not export any goods to the country it comes from," he said. "Instead, cash is removed from this country and it goes to the country the qat is imported from. That money that is being spent is very harmful to Somalia due to [the lack of] balance in trade."
Calls to ban qat:
Abdirahman said qat should be banned in Somalia and the government should encourage qat traders to seek out and establish new enterprises.
"If qat is banned, the money that is spent on it would come back to the country and the people who trade in qat would create new businesses," he said, adding that "there are other unexploited businesses that need to be taken advantage of."
The government and private investors currently in the qat business should invest in rebuilding and revitalising the country's agricultural and fishing industries and help re-establish Somalia as a major exporter of exotic fruits and seafood such as mangoes, bananas and lobsters, he said.
The government's investment in these sectors can create thousands of new jobs without any of the negative elements associated with qat trade and consumption, he said.
For his part, Somali religious scholar Sheikh Mukhtar Haji Ahmed said he would support a nationwide ban on qat because its widespread use has been one of the major causes of Somalia's economic and social decline.
"According to our religion, anything that harms the life and health of a person is not allowed. Qat is a drug and according to sharia, any drug that alters the mind is forbidden," Ahmed told Sabahi. "Therefore, I urge Somalis to follow their religion and stop the sinful [use of] qat which is destroying their wealth and lives."
According to Doctor Mohamed Omar, who works at Dar es Salaam Clinic in Mogadishu's Hodan district, regular use of qat causes serious health and social problems.
"A person who chews qat usually suffers from stress and eventually gets a mental illness," he told Sabahi. "This person also does not eat much and even forgets to eat at times."
"Qat [also] breaks up many families since the father spends the money he gets on qat. This results in financial arguments within the family and eventually leads to a family break-up," Omar said.
The recent drop in price of the drug, caused by the sudden influx from Kenya, will increase public use and only exacerbate the negative impacts its widespread use has had in Somalia, he said.
Mohamed Hassan, a 27-year-old truck driver who works at the Mogadishu port and earns between $300 and $350 monthly, told Sabahi he buys and chews qat daily.
"Every day I spend about $5 to $10 to buy qat to chew," he said. "I am in debt by the end of each month, forget about me saving any money."
"I would like to see [qat] banned completely because I would then be forced to stop chewing it, save some money, marry a woman and have children," he said. "I cannot do any of that right now because I cannot save any money."