African Nations Revealing A Continental Shift Toward Legal Cannabis

By Oliver Bennett, Special Contributor to New Frontier Data

Various recent events have marked the emergence of sub-Saharan Africa into the international legal cannabis industry. Two years after New Frontier Data analysed the available opportunities for the legal cannabis industry and hemp production on the continent, independent efforts are taking shape.

For starters, the kingdom of Lesotho – landlocked within South Africa – became the continent’s first nation to earn a licence to sell medical cannabis to the European Union (EU). Medical cannabis producer MG Health met the EU’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) protocol to gain access to export medical cannabis to Europe. Germany is its first stated destination, with additional intentions for France and the United Kingdom. It joins a growing group of companies that have invested in the small mountainous country since Lesotho first licenced growing for medical cannabis in 2017, a recent entry to the market being the Wuhan General Group which via local company Tsime Pharmaceuticals has reportedly started recruiting for a “world-class” medical cannabis facility in the small state.

Another significant boast in the southern African region has come from the emergence of a National Cannabis Master Plan (NCMP) out of South Africa, with cannabis and hemp seen as means to boost the country’s economy. One of Africa’s economic titans alongside oil-rich Nigeria, South Africa decriminalized personal cultivation for its 3.5 million users, and began issuing licenses for medical cannabis cultivation in 2018. As part of an initiative fostered by President Cyril Ramaphosa to promote public-private partnerships, the NCMP offers a blueprint for the industry’s development; various suggestions due to become law by 2023 are expected to create up to 25,000 jobs and generate $1.9 billion annually, while socially demystifying cannabis, and neutralising its illicit image.

In both cases, potential social benefits are emphasized to the fore, with the suggestion in South Africa that provincial cannabis committees and agricultural cooperatives – there are reputedly more than 900,000 small-scale farmers in the country – could take a participatory role, rather than being driven and potentially overwhelmed by multinationals and foreign companies.

Being overseen by the Cannabis Development Council of South Africa and using competition law if necessary, there has been a suggestion that “dagga” (regional slang for cannabis) could become a protected name of geographic origin. There has been home-grown entrepreneurship and technological input: Two college students founded AgriSmart Engineering to develop a growing technique using algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) to produce high-yield cannabis crop, one of several cultivation trials happening in the country.

Elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, other moves are afoot – sometimes tentative, but hinting at a major shifting in attitudes regarding the cannabis industry. Malawi, another landlocked (and impoverished) country in the southern African region, is aiming to raise its cannabis game by growing it in place of the tobacco that currently brings some 60% of the country’s revenue. President Lazarus Chakwera has proposed that the country should move from its declining tobacco crop by switching to cannabis (along with other cash crops including ground nuts and beans). The country’s Cannabis Regulatory Authority (CRA) has issued 86 licenses to 35 companies, with a view to increasing cannabis and hemp cultivation.

There are several other nascent cannabis industries in Africa. Zimbabwe legalized medical cannabis cultivation in 2018, while in Uganda (where licenses were approved in late 2019) a joint venture between domestic producer Industrial Hemp and Israeli company Together Pharma began exporting cannabis to Israel. Resource-rich Zambia aims to legalize cultivation and export medical cannabis. Even Kenya, despite harsh cannabis laws, may move forward and promote the cannabis industry as its Pharmaceutical Society of Kenya lobbies its government to legalize medical cannabis. West Africa is less forward-looking than the southern region, but even there Ghana’s parliament passed the Narcotics Control Commission Bill last year, allowing cannabis for industrial and medicinal purposes.

As elsewhere in the Global South, the potential of cannabis for wealth creation is seen as a powerful lever for liberalising cannabis production. In Lesotho, MG’s 250-strong workforce is expected to grow to 3,000 due to demand. It should be remembered that across the continent, the cannabis industry is falling on historic ground: As detailed in a policy study at the UK’s Bristol University, cannabis has been a part of the culture in Africa for many centuries, with native indica strains in the north to sativa strains in southern Africa. Its research looks at three areas in Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa, with links through agencies across Africa.

Moreover, connoisseurs of recreational cannabis have long understood the quality of product in sub-Saharan Africa, from Malawi Gold (a Sativa strain from the eponymous country) to Durban Poison from South Africa’s port city. While it may not be what is driving the current African movement in cannabis production, it does tell a story of high-quality produce that might well be heeded by the boffins of bioscience and cannabis epigenetics.