South Africa has the potential to position itself as a leader in the global cannabis market, says industry experts. Not only does the green herb contain a multitude of beneficial, medicinal, spiritual, and cultural properties, it has the power to “deliver the poor from the wicked hands of poverty” by creating jobs in disadvantaged and rural communities.
“South Africa has Durban Poison (a Sativa dominant strain). We can actually kill the market,” says Dr Thandeka Kunene, a self-confessed cannabis fanatic and founder of House of Hemp in Meyerton, Gauteng.
Kunene, the co-founder of the Cannabis Development Council of South Africa, was among a panel of experts to speak at a recent webinar hosted as part of Scifest Africa, hosted virtually until 31 March 2021.
Cannabis industry experts unpacked concerns which hampered the progress of the industry, sought to seek solutions, and paved the way for commercialisation. Experts also responded to the concerns of future producers who believed that the conclusion of the vote on the cannabis bill to commercialise the industry would side-line them, citing worries over price hikes, the syndication of cannabis by monopoly producers and heavy taxation.
‘Formalise it now’
Despite the cannabis industry only recently peaking its head in the country, commercialisation is not an entirely new concept, says Dr Mfundo Maqubela, director of research in the Eastern Cape department of rural development and agrarian reform.
Maqubela reveals that attempts to formalise the cannabis industry in the province began in 1999.
“Cannabis has been an income generator in rural communities for a long time. People have used it to send children to universities. They are using it to make a living from these crops even though they are doing it illegally,” he said.
He added that, “Cannabis crops were not just economically direct. Health benefit have made it key to the works of traditional healers who often use it as medicine to heal the sick in communities, sparing the poor the high costs of private medical attention.”
Maqubela’s sentiments were echoed by a National Agricultural Marketing Council economist, Lucius Phaleng. “There have been several rural communities who have been cultivating and selling cannabis for decades. That income has contributed to their improved livelihood especially at household and economic development levels.”
Only a handful of countries on the African continent produce cannabis commercially, Phaleng observed. This includes Ethiopia, Nigeria and the DRC.
“Within South Africa it is estimated to create between 10 000 and 25 000 jobs across the entire value chain. Demand exists on both medical cannabis markets and recreational cannabis markets,” says Phaleng.
Meanwhile Kunene is only one of few black commercial cannabis manufacturers to exist in the space.
Hers is a success story 21-years in the making. After all, success in the industry is often hampered by conflicting legislation, Phaleng revealed. “This is still a new industry to us as we are still looking into commercialization.
Phaleng also added that setbacks and bottlenecks in commercialisation were a direct result of two regulations in the Constitution: the drug trafficking act and the medicine and related substance control act. “There is a conflict between existing legislation especially when we talk about commercialising cannabis.
“Even if the cannabis bill is put into place in the near future it will still not address challenges of commercialisation of the industry, because those acts make it illegal to permit commercialisation.”
Solutions, he believes, exist in “compiling a comprehensive bill which provides for the commercialisation of cannabis. We need legislation that is more focused on the commercialisation of the cannabis industry Alternatively, we should consider creating some policy frameworks to make provision for the drafting of commercial cannabis legislation.”
‘Get up, stand up’
The fear of commercialisation only hampers progress of those who are not willing to utilise opportunities for growth, Kunene argues.
“We want people to stand up and go, sometimes we complain, and we haven’t even knocked on the door.”
She reveals that she too had fears of a “cannabis capture” taking a hold of an industry sacred to indigenous communities. “Everywhere in the world monopoly capture happens. In South Africa we have indigenous knowledge policies which is a law. We can use to make sure indigenous communities are guaranteed 90% stake of future commercialisation efforts.”
“CANNABIS is estimated to create between 10 000 and 25 000 jobs across the entire value chain IN SOUTH AFRICA.”
Kunene says, “Government must teach cannabis farmers to be a stand-alone business and not be hustling via a middleman who is a historically advantaged dealer. If we cut them out and empower local producers with licenses and immunity like we did with guns, the world is our oyster. Marijuana is not as harmful as guns.”
Meanwhile Maqubela adds that government was willing to protect the interest of farmers at all costs. “Let us not be scared of exploring opportunities, otherwise we are depriving ourselves of an opportunity. This industry is not new. We will make sure that our farmers are not exploited.”