“Cannabis has the potential to positively impact our economy, facilitating large-scale job creation, uplifting low-income communities especially in underserved rural areas, as well as contributing to the overall improvement of people’s health,” says CEO and co-founder of Cheeba Africa, Trenton Birch.
Birch is a cannabis education entrepreneur. He recently founded Cheeba Africa, a cannabis health and wellness company that launched Africa’s first cannabis academy last year. It also has its own media edutainment channel called Craft Cannabis TV.
The Cheeba Cannabis Academy is the first learning platform dedicated to cannabis education on the African continent. This year, it opened two physical campuses – one in Gauteng and another in Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape.
These education channels are very important in the cannabis sector, Birch says, as there are many different ways to grow the plant, as well as many legal hurdles to overcome.
A cannabis market in South Africa?
“For legally grown, mass-produced cannabis there is no local market,” says Birch. “If you grow cannabis here with a medicinal licence, you have to export it.”
The bottom line is thus, if you do not have an export licence, you cannot get a licence to grow and even if you have an export licence, it doesn’t guarantee you will get a growing licence. This is because your product needs to be grown to a certain standard.
How to farm cannabis legally
Due to the legal complications of this crop, it is difficult to farm and sell it legally. Birch says there are currently only three entry points available.
Obtaining a medicinal licence
“One can apply for a medicinal licence through SAHPRA [the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority],” Birch suggests first. But this is quite a comprehensive process and it requires capital to set up a “good manufacturing process” (GMP) facility where production of pharmaceuticals take place. It is a lengthy process and entails standard operating procedures, where everything needs to be regulated, checked and tested, in order to grow medicinal cannabis.
The ultimate objective is consistency, says Birch. “And the only way you get consistency is to make sure you have proper systems in place, and proper testing.”
Growing hemp for industrial use
This option is for farming with hemp in South Africa. “Permits for those growing allowances are being issued from October , then you can grow hemp for industrial use,” says Birch.
Because these licences will not allow for medicinal use, there will be a limit to the amount of THC found in the hemp. Both CBD (cannabidiol) and THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) are compounds found naturally in cannabis plants but THC is the psychoactive compound – the one that makes people feel “high”. CBD, on the other hand, is said to give all the benefits of THC without producing the psychoactive effects.
Growing for cannabis clubs
“The September 2018 concourt ruling states that people have the right to consume and grow cannabis personally at home,” says Birch.
He says that clubs have found a slight grey area in this ruling, with other people growing cannabis for the members of the club. This enables the members to fulfil their constitutional right to consume cannabis at home.
Selling cannabis products
The methods listed above are currently the only gateways to farming cannabis legally in South Africa, and there is currently no trade industry for THC as it is still illegal. But according to Birch that might change soon.
“You can only sell CBD products that are imported. You cannot buy or trade CBD, at the moment, internally from a legal perspective.”
You also cannot buy or sell THC, says Birch. The only way you can sell THC products legally in South Africa is through submitting a Section 21 application through SAHPRA. In a nutshell, a Section 21 allows the use of unregistered medicine, such as cannabis.
“That Section 21 is per patient, and is issued through SAHPRA,” says Birch. “Doctors are able to issue Section 21s so that patients can get a medical card.”
The practical side of growing cannabis
“Growing cannabis at home is relatively simple,” says Birch. If you are growing your cannabis plants outdoors, you need knowledge of light cycles and the basic principles of growing it, but it is probably the easiest way to grow cannabis.
“If you are growing indoors in a tent, you are basically recreating the outdoor environment inside,” he further explains. “So, you need to understand all kinds of parameters.” These include temperature control and creating air flow with fans to replicate the outside environment. It is a lot more technical than growing the plants outside.
The growing season starts in September or October. Because of the long summers in South Africa, you can get up to three growing cycles from the growing season – if you are clever about it. It will differ across regions, though.
Furthermore, cannabis can be grown from seed, clones or tissue cultures, says Birch.
He says commercial cannabis farmers prefer to farm from clones, which come from a “mother plan” and will have the same genetics as the mother. With seeds you cannot always be sure what you’ll get.
“It can get very complex when you are growing at scale,” says Birch. “You are dealing with thousands of plants; you are dealing with all kinds of different parameters.”
If you grow your crop in tunnels, you should make sure you provide adequate airflow in summer. If you grow the plant indoors, you need to manage different environmental factors using complex computer systems, for instance. Scaling up to an industrial level is difficult and takes a lot of work.
“Growing indoors is a science and an art altogether,” says Birch.
Opportunities in the cannabis sector
Despite the legal hurdles, opportunities are increasing in cannabis farming, says Birch. “The challenge is, without legislation and without updated legislation and clarity on the ins and outs, there is a lot of grey area in what you can do.”
There is huge market potential for selling growing equipment to upcoming cannabis farmers or hobbyists. And according to Birch there is a growing recreational market for people growing at home.
If you have the capital, there is also a big market for medicinal growers. For the medicinal licence you will need an off-take agreement, meaning you will need an international company agreeing to take your product.
Birch also points to the potential offered by the peripheral industry, whether it is in security, courier services, marketing, recruitment and other ancillary services within the industry.
For now, opportunities for farmers and producers are on hold unless you import. “The industry is coming online, but until legislation is clarified by the government, it will take some time,” says Birch.
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