For generations, farmers planted the lush earth of Awedai and nearby areas in eastern Ethiopia with coffee trees, earning a livelihood from a crop that is now the country’s main export.
But the centuries-long practice is now being abandoned in favour of khat, a leafy plant chewed as a stimulant in the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.
“Coffee comes only once a year. But you can harvest khat twice a year,” said Jemal Moussa, a 45-year-old farmer and father of six who depends on the narcotic leaf for income. “Khat is much more useful.”
He said it was in the early 2000s that farmers in the Awedai area started planting khat as its popularity rose and coffee prices remained stagnant.
One kg of coffee sells for between 50 and 60 birr. A bunch of khat, while not measured in kilograms, goes for 100 birr.
Jemal said by this year, the entire economy of Awedai, a small town 35 km outside the ancient city of Harar, relied on the leaf.
Trucks piled with khat head out of the town every 30 minutes, dispersing their produce to the nearby Ethiopian Somali Region and Hargeisa, in the neighbouring semi-autonomous region of Somaliland.
Illegal in several Western nations, the leaf is immensely popular in the region, giving the chewer a mild amphetamine-like high.
In addition to cash incentive of khat, coffee growing is being affected by dwindling forest coverage as well as drought.
Farmers believe the characteristic flavour of Ethiopian coffee is derived from growing it in the shade of larger trees – leaving it vulnerable if trees are stunted or removed.