Miraa: The two-pronged attack on Meru’s green gold

By Patrick Muthuri

The green gold of Meru is under threat and residents are worried.

Farmers of miraa, or khat, have asked the Government to intervene to prevent the collapse of the multi-billion-shilling sector after two recent events left them staring at the possibility of losing their source of livelihood.

The first is the ban of miraa in the Netherlands earlier this year, and a decision announced yesterday by the UK government to criminalise trade and possession of the crop.

The second is an attempt by the National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse (Nacada) to have it classified as a drug.

Billions in revenue

Farmers say the decision taken by the two countries will deny the country billions of shillings in revenue.

About 20 tonnes of miraa were exported to the Netherlands weekly before the ban, while the UK imports 36 tonnes a week.

According to Nyambene Miraa Traders Association (Nyamita), farmers in Meru County made Sh1 billion from the crop last year, down from Sh1.4 billion in 2011.

Miraa has long been an important cultural crop in Meru County, particularly for the Igembe and Tigania communities.

However, in the last few decades, the crop has become a commercial commodity, thanks to the industry and distribution networks of the Somali community.

The prohibition of exports to the Netherlands is expected to deny Kenya between Sh1 billion and Sh2 billion in  annual income.

Miraa is also prohibited in Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, USA and 17 European Union countries.

The UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) in a 2005 review of miraa recommended that the use of the twig be discouraged, citing health and social problems, in a report that was adopted by the government in early 2006.

However, due to protests from farmers and traders, the ACMD in January 2006 advised the Home Office to tackle health and social issues associated with miraa through other means other than criminalisation.

However, yesterday, Home Secretary Theresa May decided to ban it, saying the risks posed could have been underestimated, and the UK may end up being used as a transit route to other EU countries.

Further, miraa exports to Somalia have been put on hold following the Kenyan Defence Forces’ incursion into the Horn of Africa country to root out the Al Shabaab.

Nyamita chairman Edward Mutura lamented that the miraa sector has never been given any recognition by Government despite it supporting millions of Kenyans and generating billions in foreign exchange for the economy. 

Processing plant

“The Government should bring miraa into the formal economy and consider the possibility of setting up a miraa processing plant in Igembe. The crop can be refined into a stimulant just like tea or coffee. This will add value to it and enable farmers earn more money,” he said.

Politicians in Meru have joined traders in calling for a lift of the miraa ban in the Netherlands and UK, and have asked the Government to get involved in negotiations.

“(Meru County’s) economy will be dealt a big blow by the ban,” Igembe South MP Mithika Linturi said.

He called on scientists to establish the facts about miraa so that the crop can be defended before the World Health Organisation.