After getting the green light, Mzansi’s hemp farming industry is about to take off. With cannabis hubs being built in multiple provinces, we talk to Kwena Mokgohloa, a researcher at the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), who gives us insight on farming with the plant.
Mokgohloa, who has a degree in agriculture, started his journey as an agricultural researcher in 2007. He has been working with hemp since 2009, right at the forefront of the country’s hemp development research.
He explains that hemp is part of the cannabis species – cannabis sativa to be exact – but what sets it apart is that is contains minimal Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
“Hemp is a type of cannabis sativa that contains a low amount of THC. 0.3 to be exact. THC is the main psychoactive compound that is found in cannabis. Basically, that’s what makes people high when they smoke, but it is very, very low in hemp.”
The ARC’s research started in the early 1990s, when there were no hemp cultivars in the country, says Mokgohloa. They then imported different hemp cultivars from across the world and, after testing these strains, settled on three that were the most conducive to the South African climate, he adds.
“Then the second phase of the project was to develop our own cultivars that can perform even better than those three that were recommended under our conditions, and ARC managed to develop two cultivars. We call them SA Hemp One and SA Hemp Two.”
Cannabis legislation in South Africa
Mokgohloa says that the cultivars developed by the ARC has not been registered by the department of agriculture, which is why is it not yet available for sale. He explains that, initially, hemp was not listed as an agricultural crop, which was part of the reason it could not be registered.
“Also, hemp is cannabis and cannabis is listed under the Drugs and Drugs Trafficking Act (140 of 1992). So those two legislations needed to be amended for these cultivars to be registered. The first process of declaring hemp as a crop was done by the minister of agriculture. It is still listed under Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, though, which is why these two cultivars are not registered.”
Minister of agriculture, land reform and rural development (DALRRD), Thoko Didiza, opened permit applications for hemp farming in October 2021. The permits are subject to a number of conditions and requirements, including an analytical report from the hemp importer confirming that the THC content of the cultivar is less than 0.2% and proof of cultivar or variety registration.
Mokgohloa says that the cultivars cannot be registered as long as cannabis is still listed under the Drugs and Drug Trafficking Act, which essentially means that hemp farmers in Mzansi, under the current legislation, can only farm with hemp seeds they import.
Importing hemp seeds
Mokgohloa predicts that growing hemp will be a lot cheaper once the ARC cultivars are registered, as there would be no import costs or import conditions that farmers need to meet. He also points out that importing hemp seeds is risky, as the imports have very likely not been tested against the South African climate.
“You can spend all the money that you have to buy the seed but, [what if], when you cultivate it, it doesn’t perform the way it’s supposed to? So it’s risky, but that’s one of the things that needs to happen if one wants to go into this industry.”
According to this guide by the DALRRD, to import hemp seed into the country, producers need the following:
- Import authorisation in terms of Plant Improvement Act, 1976, and a permit for the import of controlled goods in terms of Agricultural Pests Act, 1983
- A copy of the valid hemp permit of the importer
- Proof of variety registration, filing or certification from a recognised certification scheme
- An analytical report stating the THC content of the plants from which the plants or propagating material is derived
The guide also lists the rest of the quite extensive guidelines required to cultivate hemp in the country, including guidelines on transportation, property registration and variety registration.
Cultivating hemp for different purposes
At the ARC, hemp is processed for two purposes: fibre production and seed production. Mokgohloa says from the planting stage, hemp can take between 90 days to 150 days to grow. The length of time it grows depends on what the produce will be used for.
“Under good conditions, planted hemp takes about three to five days to germinate. From planting until harvesting, it takes anything between 90 and 120 days, but that will depend on the type of cultivar that one is using. Also, when I say between 90 and 120 days, I am only talking about hemp for fibre production.”
Cultivating hemp for seed production spans a period of 120 to 150 days, says Mokgohloa. “You harvest hemp earlier when you cultivate for fibre production, a little bit later when you cultivate for seed production.”
Mokgohloa explains that hemp meant for the textile industry is planted a little differently to hemp meant for seed production. “When you cultivate for fibre production, you cultivate the plants so that they are closer to each other, maybe at about 5cm between the plants. That way they grow taller.
“But when you cultivating for the seed, you want the plants to be bushy, so the distance from one plant to another can be anything [from] 30cm to about half a metre.”
He explains that with fibre production, more of the stem is needed. This is why the plants need to grow as tall as possible. By planting the seeds far from each other, it gives the plants more room to bud.
“With seed production, the seeds are going to be in the buds of the plant. So when they are bushy, the buds are going to be many, but when they are closer to each other, then the buds are going to be few.”
One of the most important aspects of growing hemp, says Mokgohlo, is the length of the day. If plants are grown in an environment where the length of the day is shorter, or during a season where the day is shorter, it does not do as well.
“For it to grow properly, it needs to be cultivated in an area with a day length of more than 13 hours. If you cultivate it in an area where the day length is shorter than the minimum requirement of the hemp, then it is going to flower early and when the hemp flowers early, that automatically reduces the yield.”
Other important things to note
At the moment, Mokgohloa says pests and disease are not really rife in South Africa’s hemp growing industry, because the plant is not widely cultivated.
“We found pests to be insignificant, but I think they might be a problem when large areas in the whole of South Africa start cultivating hemp. But, for now, the main ones that are affecting the hemp are the American boreworm and spider mites.”
When it comes to set-up costs, Mokgohlo explains that is an expensive endevour. Aspiring hemp producers have dozens of permit requirements they need to meet, plus the cost of importing of hemp seeds and the setting up other infrastructure.
“When you start, it will definitely be expensive. For example, one of the conditions when you apply for the cultivation permit, is that the area where you’re going to cultivate it needs to be fenced off. That costs money. If you want to process the hemp, you also need some equipment which doesn’t come cheap. But moving forward, the costs are going to reduce because you’re not going to spend the same amount of money that you spent when you started.”
Finally, Mokgohloa urges farmers to start production only if they have a market. “I think the most important [aspect] that will determine whether you are going to make a profit or not is that you need to find about the market before you even start cultivating. Who is going to buy your product from you?”
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