The sun-blasted streets of the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa (below), are inundated with stalls selling the narcotic plant khat. It's estimated that 90% of Somaliland's adult male population, as well as 20% of its female population, chew the bitter leaf.
Khat is so enmeshed in daily life and culture that it has become an important import tax earner for the government, generating 20% of its $15201 budget in 2014 and providing valuable jobs. "Khat is the number-one employer in Hargeisa, generating between 8,000 and 10,000 jobs," says Weli Daud at the Somaliland Ministry of Finance.
Those involved in the khat trade are part of a strong entrepreneurial tradition in Somaliland, a tradition that arose in part following the country's declaration of independence from Somalia in 1991. Without formal recognition from the international community, the country had to go it alone and rebuilt itself after a devastating war with Somalia, a process in which private business and entrepreneurs played a critical role.
"In 1991, Hargeisa was totally destroyed, it was rubble, wasteland," says Saeed Mohamoud from Horizon Institute, a Somaliland consultancy firm helping communities transition from underdevelopment to resilience and stability. "The first people who brought vital life back to the place were local entrepreneurs who took dhow boats to Dubai to get supplies."
The city and Somaliland's economy were rebuilt by such entrepreneurial energy. But today, still cut off from global financial systems and investment, there is a limit to the scope of business opportunities. In such a context, khat provides an obvious viable and sustainable commercial opportunity.
Khat has a long history in the Horn of Africa and surrounding region, including the likes of Yemen. Its leaves were viewed as sacred by the ancient Egyptians, while Sufi religious men chewed khat to remain awake to study the Quran late into the night. Today, khat is very much in the mainstream, an established and lucrative industry.
"It's better than alcohol as you can still function normally afterwards --it helps you get more focused," says Abdul, a journalist in Hargeisa, who previously lived in the US and chews khat when on deadline. "It affects people differently, it depends on your personality. After khat some like to read, others to work."
According to Zahre, a so-called 'khat mamma' of 22 years who runs a stall beside a dentist in central Hargeisa, "Business is good." She...