Could Africa be the home of the next green rush?
As of 2005, the continent has produced more than 10,500 tons of cannabis each year in 19 out of 53 African countries, according to a UN Survey. This accounted for roughly 25 percent of the total global production of cannabis. And an estimated 38.2 million African adults (7.7 percent of the adult population) use cannabis each year—far more than the world average of 3.8 percent.
So it’s no wonder countless eyes are watching to see what the various African governments will decide. Unfortunately, it’s been slow going. Unlike countries in Europe and the Americas, most African countries have been hesitant to embrace the rapidly expanding market for legal cannabis, although Africa has produced cannabis for generations. With colonization came criminalization.
This year, Lesotho became the first African country to grant a license for medical marijuana to Verve Dynamics, a South African company that produces botanical extracts and specialty ingredients. This is the first time in Africa that cannabis has been viewed as a source of revenue instead of a criminal activity, and it’s about time.
According to the latest UNODC data, Africa is home to five of the top thirty countries for cannabis consumption among the adult population:
- #3 Nigeria: 14.3%
- #10 Zambia: 9.5%
- #14 Madagascar: 9.1%
- #25 Egypt: 6.24%
- #30 Sierra Leone: 5.2%
Over 75 percent of Lesotho’s population lives off the agricultural market, and Lesotho farmers have already been growing cannabis for years, exporting it across the border to South Africa, according to an interview with DPH. In fact, a 1999 UNESCO report found that “cannabis is grown everywhere in the country,” and much of Europe receives their cannabis from Africa.
Unfortunately, despite the new license for Verve Dynamics, no effort has been made to legalize or regulate cannabis in Lesotho, and it’s the same in South Africa. In Johannesburg, legal cannabis use is still contested, but that hasn’t stopped the city’s first cannabis coffee shop. Run by Frank L, who won’t give his full name for print, the shop is lit by neon signs but runs in the shadows to stay in operation.
Though the Western Cape High Court ruled last March that private use and cultivation of cannabis in someone’s home is constitutionally legal, Parliament has yet to amend the law, so uncertainty still exists. However, it seems to be just a matter of time, considering how popular Frank’s shop is.
In October, Frank spoke to the Sunday Times in South Africa, stating, “People just want a place where they smoke that’s a social, chilled, safe space.” And the evidence is overwhelming. In the first month alone, more than 1,300 people went to Frank’s store from all walks of life, with patrons including a judge, businessmen, students and stockbrokers.
And elsewhere throughout Africa, the green rush trend is growing.
- In Morocco, the hashish trade employs more than 800,000 people, according to Bloomberg, and it’s worth $10 billion a year in sales.
- Malawi is known for high quality marijuana production, including the “Malawi Gold” strain. Plus, the country is now cultivating hemp on a trial basis.
- In Swaziland, prominent public figures have come out in favor of cannabis to help boost the struggling economy.
The question is, then, “How could cannabis help grow the African economy?”
While the impact would be different for each country on the continent, there’s no doubt that for some of the poorest residents, the benefits would be substantial. For example, in Swaziland deep poverty can still be found in many rural areas, and cannabis is already responsible for helping some families survive. Khathazile, a grandmother of 11 orphaned grandchildren, told the New York Times, “If you grow corn or cabbages, the baboons steal them. Without weed, we would be starving.”
If cannabis is grown and exported legally across the African continent, the gains could be huge—as much as $79.8 billion per year. And some of the biggest benefits could go to Africa’s smallholder farmers, who would be able to command the market price—if it were legal. On the other hand, many fear legalization could bring large companies (and investors) who won’t have the interests of locals at heart. Farmers could potentially see gains, or face exploitation by big business.
Then there’s hemp, for which demand has increased by 233 percent over the past few years, and could prove a valuable export crop for anything from rope to paper and biofuel. And the list of benefits is extensive: Hemp is easy to grow, prevents soil erosion, is disease-resistant, and far better for the environment, requiring 50 percent less water than cotton.
Could marijuana be the next big industry for Africa? If handled correctly by each country’s governments, as well as the large businesses that set up shop in conjunction with local farmers, it very well could be.