A growing number of countries in Africa are looking to cannabis as the ticket out of poverty, and foreign investment for this sector has flooded in. Activists who pushed for legal commercial cultivation now face the challenge of crafting a cannabis economy that empowers small farmers and rural communities, rather than replicating the elitist forms of past agro-export industries.
Voices in the global industry are increasingly anticipating a cannabis boom on the continent. There are now seven legal producers in Africa. South Africa, one of the continent’s economic giants, decriminalized personal cultivation through a ruling of its high court in 2018, and that same year began issuing licenses for commercial cultivation of medical marijuana.
South Africa’s small, landlocked neighbor, the mountain kingdom of Lesotho, issued the continent’s first commercial cultivation licenses in 2017, and is now producing for the international medical market. Significant investment has come from major Canadian licensed producers, day-lighting the kingdom’s traditional illicit cannabis sector.
Zimbabwe also legalized medical marijuana cultivation in 2018, by order of the Health Ministry, although no licenses have yet been issued. In Uganda, plans for commercial cultivation were held up by demands from conservative cabinet members for a legal review last year, but the first licenses were approved in December 2019, going to the Israeli company Together Pharma.
Also in December, Zambia’s cabinet took the decision to legalize cultivation and export of cannabis for the medical market. The move came as the country was being stricken by a severe drought — a grim harbinger of aridification linked to global climate change in the greater southern African region. This could make Zambia an unwilling test case on the claims of cannabis drought-resistance.
These five countries have recently been joined by two more: Malawi in southern Africa and Ghana, the first entry in the West Africa region.
Malawi: Transitioning from Tobacco
Malawi’s parliament passed a bill on Feb. 26, 2020, legalizing cultivation and processing of cannabis for either medical marijuana or industrial hemp — although strictures were not removed on general use. “We are very happy that finally we’re taking the right steps to move the country’s economy forwards,” Chauncy Jere of the Malawi Hemp Association told Reuters.
“There’s no denying that cannabis would be a lucrative industry and its demand is huge,” said Jere, who is also a director of Ikaros Africa, a company now conducting industrial hemp trials on lands in the Great Rift Valley of Central Malawi. The company’s website says it will soon be marketing “sustainably sourced full-spectrum, organically-grown CBD hemp oil and extracts.” It boasts ambitions to “promote one of the three big C’s of this agriculturally dependent country: Chamba (hemp), Chombe (tea) and Chambo (tilapia fish).”
But it is actually tobacco that has been Malawi’s chief foreign exchange crop since independence from Great Britain in 1964. Tobacco now accounts for 60% of the country’s GDP. An aim of the cannabis cultivation bill is to wean the country off of the tobacco economy. Malawi is under pressure from anti-smoking campaigns around the world. Last November, the US Homeland Security Department suspended imports of all tobacco products from Malawi for alleged forced labor practices, including child labor.
And there are growing concerns about tobacco’s ecological impacts within Malawi. Tobacco is a major contributor to Malawi’s serious deforestation problem. Not only is land cleared for plantations — a potential problem with any crop — but forests are plundered for fuel to cure the leaf as well. The tobacco industry is therefore in a nexus with illegal logging. Local villagers have resorted to such creative solutions as beekeeping to keep tree-fellers out of their woodlands. This not only produces honey as a sustainable economic alternative, but the bees deter the loggers.
The agro-forestry website Devdiscourse notes that some are also banking on a cannabis tourism draw in Malawi — despite the continued prohibition of “recreational” use. The country is already one of the continent’s biggest (illicit) producers of marijuana, including rare THCV-rich varietals with intriguing medical potential. Malawi Gold, an ancient and unadulterated “sativa” strain, rivals South Africa’s Durban Poison as a kind of Holy Grail for cannabis aficionados around the world. Central Malawi’s Nkhotakota district (which also boasts a large wildlife reserve of the same name) is already a known destination for canna-tourists on the Africa trail.
As tobacco declines, the push to transition from a monolithic cash-crop is becoming urgent. In 2019, the World Bank reported that Malawi “remains one of the poorest countries in the world despite making significant economic and structural reforms to sustain economic growth.” The country’s poverty rate was higher than 50% in 2016. Malawi also suffered terrible damage in Cyclone Idai, which devastated much of the region, including parts of neighboring Mozambique, in March 2019.
The cultivation bill was actually introduced by Agricultural Minister Kondwani Nankhumwa, who boasted to the local Nyasa Times upon the final vote, “We believe cannabis can be an effective substitute for tobacco in the long term.”
A commentary in the Nyasa Times took a more cynical view, noting President Peter Mutharika’s recent controversial efforts to prolong his term in office through methods all too common among Africa’s rulers. After five years in office, Mutharika was elected to a second term last May in polls the opposition rejected as tainted. Despite waves of street protests, he has since resisted calls for new elections. The editorial portrayed a kind of pot populism appealing to the nation’s struggling small farmers.
The current global health emergency is providing a new lease for incumbents and strongmen worldwide, and Africa is no exception. As the Nyasa Times concluded: “[A] combination of COVID-19 and cannabis sales might turn out to be what keeps Mutharika in his office for the foreseeable future.”
Ghana: Hemp on the Volta
Ghana’s parliament on March 20, 2020, passed the Narcotics Control Commission Bill, allowing use and production of cannabis for industrial and medicinal purposes — but, again, not general adult use. The Hemp Association of Ghana, which had lobbied hard for the bill, is now brokering export deals for local farmers. Portugal is named as an initial destination for fiber hemp exports. The group is anticipating profits of $2.8 million per harvest on 100 acres of hemp plantations.
Hemp Association president Nana Kwaku Agyemang brought farmers from the agricultural Volta region to capital Accra to testify for the bill. He was quick to disassociate his efforts from the stigma of drug use, telling the Africa Feeds news service: “We seem to get lost in this issue of getting high… [W]e are not promoting smoking, we are promoting the industry, we are promoting cleaning up the environment, we are promoting creating a new revenue stream for government … [W]e are … promoting medicines that are far better than opioids, medicines that cannot kill you because no one has died from taking cannabis.”
Ghana’s new law adopts the 0.3% THC standard used in the United States and other countries — plants exceeding the 0.3% THC threshold remain forbidden. It also gives oversight of the hemp industry to the government body traditionally concerned with enforcement, the Narcotics Control Board, while upgrading it to a Commission.
Ghana is a relatively stable country in a volatile region. It has thus far been spared the political violence and social breakdown now shaking its northern neighbor Burkina Faso. (The two countries share the Volta River). Ghana also has a fairly diversified economy, exporting oil and gold as well as cocoa beans.
But because cocoa can only be grown in the country’s forest zones, this industry is also taking an ecological toll. Forest loss to make way for cocoa plantations is now ironically threatening the industry itself, as soil fertility declines and water sources are degraded. Cocoa is also an “understory crop,” which grows best under the shade in the forest zones. A new and more adaptable crop such as hemp could afford the opportunity for these zones to recover, thereby giving Ghana a new lease on ecological balance and social stability.
South Africa Embraces Hemp & Medical Cannabis
It is a hopeful sign for the continent’s incipient cannabis industry that the president of South Africa recently embraced the cannabis economy in his State of the Nation speech this year.
President Cyril Ramaphosa said in the February 13 address: “This year we will open up and regulate the commercial use of hemp products, providing opportunities for small-scale farmers; and formulate policy on the use of cannabis products for medicinal purposes, to build this industry in line with global trends.”
This was welcomed by South Africa’s agricultural association, Agri SA, albeit with a statement that included this note of caution: “The government must consider the entire value chain when designing policy for the commercial farming of both cannabis and hemp, especially since the focus is on small-scale farmers. These farmers might not necessarily have access to all the inputs necessary to ensure a successful crop, including but not limited to fertilizers and water.”
“Furthermore,” Agri SA added, “it is vital that investment in any projects need to include an outcome of job creation, given the country’s untenable unemployment rate. It is unclear what the job creation potential is in terms of primary agriculture for the commercial farming of cannabis and hemp.”
Agri SA also warned of another trend seen throughout Africa and the developing world — the displacement of traditional food staples by new cash crops: “It would also be imperative that the commercial farming of hemp and cannabis cannot interfere with food security. It is a risk that small-scale farmers may prefer to farm with cannabis or hemp because of the potential cash incentive, which could negatively impact the farming of commodities needed for food security. This is a potential unintended consequence that would need careful management.”
South Africa’s belated embrace of hemp and medical marijuana represents a major policy change for a country that was one of the first on Earth to prohibit cannabis. Passage of the 1922 Customs & Excise Duty Act classified cannabis with “habit forming drugs,” barring cultivation and criminalizing possession — 15 years before the United States effectively outlawed “marihuana.”
It was, as usual, grassroots activist pressure that cracked the edifice of prohibition. Among the key figures who have been instrumental in advancing cannabis reform in South Africa are the now-infamous “Dagga Couple,” Julian Stobbs and Myrtle Clarke — husband and wife TV producers in Johannesburg. Their arrest following an overzealous police raid on their home in 2010 provoked them into activism. They were menaced at gunpoint as their house was ransacked — only to be charged with mere cannabis possession.
Rather than pleading guilty, they fought the charge in the courts, arguing that cannabis consumption is protected under privacy provisions of South Africa’s constitution. A campaign was launched in their support. And while their case was pending, a second legal challenge was mounted by Gareth Prince, a law student and observant Rastafarian, who had been denied a license to practice by the South African Law Society upon graduation on the basis of prior cannabis convictions.
Prince sued the Law Society on religious freedom and personal liberties grounds, and in September 2018 he won a favorable ruling from South Africa’s Constitutional Court. Consequently, cannabis cultivation for personal use was decriminalized throughout the country.
Also in 2018, the South Africa Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) issued the first licenses for commercial cultivation of medical marijuana. And in May 2019, SAHPRA rescheduled CBD, opening the way for the sale of CBD extract and derivatives.
As for the Dagga Couple, their case is still on appeal, but victory looks certain if the Constitutional Court ruling is taken to be retroactive. Meanwhile, the publicity wave they unleashed has crested into a nationwide pro-cannabis cultural shift. Their nonprofit, Fields of Green for All, is calling for broader legalization, including commercial cultivation for the “recreational” or “adult-use” market.
South Africa’s struggling farmers have launched an initiative to demand legal cultivation of dagga (as cannabis is locally known) beginning in KwaZulu province, a traditional agricultural heartland that borders Lesotho on the east. And in eSwatini (formerly Swaziland), also a small landlocked kingdom bordering South Africa, lawmakers are likewise studying an initiative to legalize cannabis cultivation.
Peasants of Pondoland ‘Betrayed’
But assuring that the cannabis economy will benefit the small farmers now pushing for it will be the next challenge even if their efforts to legalize free cultivation are successful.
This reality was vividly illustrated in a series run last October in South Africa’s GroudUp magazine on the paradoxical situation faced by traditional farmers in Pondoland, a remote and rugged cannabis-growing region in the Eastern Cape province. They have faced the same hardships that cannabis-growing peasants have faced in Colombia and Mexico, including the spraying of their lands with glyphosate by South Africa Police Service helicopters in the 1990s.
But now, having to compete with legal product grown by capitalist enterprises for the medical market, traditional cannabis farmers have taken a hard economic hit. In addition to being in remote areas with poor transportation and infrastructure, these growers face institutional barriers to entering the legal market. The price of license application with SAHPRA is prohibitive for these poor farmers. And in a real Catch-22, anyone with a past conviction for illicit cultivation is barred by SAHPRA’s regs from entering the licit sector.
Beecee Nombanga, a community leader in the Pondoland village of Manhlaneni, told GroundUp: “Our people feel betrayed, because all of the licenses are being issued to companies from elsewhere, while we who have been growing this plant here for generations, who have the skills, who have the knowledge, who have the land, are still being criminalized.”
Cut-and-Run Cannabis Capitalism
Under the corporate-dominated agribusiness model, workers in the legal sector may also be in a precarious position. The major Canadian licensed producer Canopy Growth, after a period of ambitious expansion following legalization in its home country, is now rapidly downsizing. In addition to shuttering massive greenhouses in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, Canopy has also announced that it is shutting down its operations in South Africa and Lesotho.
Canopy entered Africa with its acquisition of local company Daddy Cann Lesotho in 2018, and the following year opened a massive grow facility and processing plant in the Cape Town suburb of Atlantis. At the time, Cape Town officials hailed Canopy’s “massive investment in Atlantis” that “will create more than 250 job opportunities.” Those new jobs are now apparently will be lost — at a critical moment, with the world economy shaken by the COVID-19 pandemic.
This recalls a far more egregious case reported last year from Cameroon, where British firm Trade Park said it had lined up investment from multinational tobacco and drug companies to carve a 154-square-mile cannabis plantation out of the rainforest and bring thousands of jobs to impoverished locals. Instead, as NBC News reported in December 2019, “four years after Trade Park Corporation signed its first papers with local officials, there is nothing to show for the project but angry investors, some stakes in the ground and a few dirt roads already being reclaimed by jungle.” An investigation by the Organized Crime & Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) found that locals who had been hired to cut roads into the bush for the project were never paid for their labor.
Developments in Kenya
Another likely next entry on the continent is Kenya, which may soon join Uganda as the second nation in East Africa to promote cannabis commerce. The country’s parliament is now being lobbied by the Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya to pass a bill legalizing medical marijuana — but under strict control of the national Pharmacy & Poisons Board.
Kenya currently has some of the harshest cannabis laws on Earth, despite being a major illicit producer. This situation has grim ecological consequences. A huge wildfire in February 2019 consumed some 80 square kilometers of bamboo forest in a critical watershed of the Mount Kenya region. Authorities blamed the blaze on outlaw marijuana growers who were clearing land for their crops.
Of course, it is the draconian illegality of cannabis that pushes growers into marginal forest areas. But if Africa’s fertile agricultural heartlands continue to be dominated by export cash crops — including cannabis — under regimes that favor agribusiness, then unlicensed growers involved in the illicit market could still be forced into the forests and bush.
Similar concerns are shared by Boniface Kadzamira, a former Malawian MP who introduced a bill to legalize cannabis cultivation in 2015. After a limited legalization bill was finally passed this year, he was jubilant, telling reporters, “Today is a very glorious day for me personally and, I think, for the entire nation.” But he was quick to add that the cannabis economy should not repeat the inequities associated with past agro-export booms: “We don’t want to replicate what has happened in the tobacco industry. Malawians should participate, not as tenants, but as equal partners in this new sector.”
Bill Weinberg, a Project CBD contributing writer, is a 30-year veteran journalist in the fields of drug policy, ecology and indigenous peoples. He is a former news editor at High Times magazine and produces the websites CounterVortex.org and Global Ganja Report. © Copyright, Project CBD. May not be reprinted without permission.
Excerpted from “Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana – Medical, Recreational, and Scientific” by Martin A. Lee.
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