Can Industrial Hemp Help Africa Make the Quantum Leap to Sustainability?

By Trevor Yahn-Grode, Data Analyst, New Frontier Data

In many ways, the future of the African continent is the future of humanity. With its population set to double to 2.5 billion people by 2050, the economic future of Africa will have a massive impact on the world’s ability to combat climate change.

Currently, Africa accounts for a very small percentage of total carbon emissions (less than 3%), but as countries on the continent develop and their populations growth wealthier, African nations will increase their consumption and rank among the world’s largest consumer markets. Massive economic changes (read: opportunities) and innovations will be required to feed, clothe, house, and supply the people in a carbon-neutral way.

It is precisely that need for innovation which has led the continent’s advocates and entrepreneurs to promote the use of industrial hemp to help create economic opportunities without sacrificing sustainability. New Frontier Data spoke to Malobi Ogbechie, a Nigerian entrepreneur and founder of the Panafrican Hemp Association, to get his view on the plant’s future in Africa:

Q: What makes hemp such an attractive opportunity for African countries?

A: I think African countries can use hemp to skip a lot of the mistakes made by Western countries [during the Industrial Revolution]. Whereas the West has to work backwards to undo a lot of those mistakes, we can just skip the technology and products that don’t work for the environment, and go straight to a sustainable economy. In the same way the mobile phone and internet helped African countries skip technological steps, so can hemp do that for the environmental development.

Q: What are the biggest issues facing hemp in Africa?

A: Many African countries have a lot of available land for agriculture, and African soil is notoriously fertile. This is a great advantage when you’re talking about transitioning to a bio-based economy. However, there are issues, too.

One issue is the genetics: We have a lot of indigenous cannabis cultivars in Africa, but they tend to be on the high-THC side. There aren’t any industrial cultivars I’m aware of that are thriving in equatorial and subtropical regions. We need to start developing our own genetics that works and thrives in African soil, so we can build a sustainable and stable seedbank on the continent. Genetics are going to play a massive role moving forward.

Another challenge is getting policymakers and public-sector officials interested in hemp. Currently, there are some very unfriendly laws regarding hemp in most countries. Policymakers need to be educated about what hemp is, and its transformative potential for the economy, and for society at large. When you talk about hemp, a lot of people still mix it up with marijuana, so the advocacy and education part of the movement are really important.

While the African hemp industry remains embryonic for now, interest is quickly rising, and Africa is home to some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. The legalization of high-THC cannabis in several Southern African countries has sparked a change in attitude towards hemp. Ironically, hemp legalization — which has often been feared by conservative interests as a Trojan horse for the marijuana industry — seems to be a product of changing attitudes towards marijuana, and not the other way around.

While the rapid industrialization is being welcomed by African governments for the attendant economic stimulus, it also draws concerns from environmental activists who fret that — should today’s developing countries undergo industrialization in the same manner that such unfolded in the West and Asia — it will prove catastrophic in the scope of global carbon emissions. Therefore, significant interests reside in the development of carbon-neutral replacements for traditional materials in industries such as construction, textile production, and plastics manufacturing. It is in those hemp products where hopes seek niches to decarbonize economies (or, better yet, avoid carbonizing altogether) without destroying them.

Hemp-based construction materials are especially attractive both for African countries experiencing rapid population growth, and to accommodate the building boom required to house, employ, and entertain expanding populations. Construction projects on the continent exceeded $500 billion in 2019, and are accordingly expected to grow as countries continue to economically develop.