Hurdles and handicaps on the road to mass cannabis farming

Sunday December 22 2019

A worker picks up leaves from cannabis plants inside a greenhouse of Medigrow, a Lesotho-Canadian company that grows legal cannabis, located near Marakabei, in Lesotho on August 6, 2019. PHOTO | GUILLEM SARTORIO | AFP


It will be a while before Africa can adopt cannabis farming en mass because of regulatory, infrastructural and market handicaps.

Various industry analysts say getting legislators to approve cannabis growing by peasants is a major hurdle in the conservative African society where marijuana is associated with delinquency and depression.

Cannabis farming has already proven problematic in North America despite the market being more mature than Africa, according to the African Cannabis Report by Prohibition Partners, which tracks the sector.

“Any path towards the inauguration of a legalised and regulated cannabis industry will present challenges. The laws governing cannabis use in Africa are both opaque and open to interpretation,” said managing director Daragh Anglim in the report.

The complexity in cannabis regulation is evident across Africa. While in Kenya and Uganda loads of contraband are intercepted on a daily basis, it is largely for rent-seeking by law enforcers rather than a concerted effort at combating the illicit trade.

In Embu and Meru regions on the slopes of Mount Kenya, cannabis is known to be grown in protected areas like forest reserves; often shielded by local administrators who jump into action when their jobs are at stake or a deal has gone wrong in the value chain.


Post legislation, vested interests in the lucrative trade often mean licensing is not exactly transparent. In Uganda the anti-narcotics law allows use of cannabis for medicinal use only.

Israeli firm Together Pharma and its local partner Industrial Hemp Ltd have been seeking a licence to grow cannabis for hemp, which is used in making fibre, since 2012, according to director Cadet Benjamin.

When the matter of licensing cultivation of cannabis came up in Uganda’s parliament last August, Prime Minister Ruhakana Rugunda pleaded for more time while the Ministry of Health said it was waiting for a Cabinet position on the matter. Growing and using cannabis for recreation is illegal in Uganda.

Away from regulation, the analysts point at infrastructure constraints. Because cannabis would have to be grown under tight controls for safety reasons, it is unlikely to be allowed in open fields.

That leaves regulated farming under greenhouses as the immediately viable option, as is happening in Lesotho, Zimbabwe and South Africa, with the farms also serving as bonded warehouses. Apart from the greenhouses being expensive, cannabis would have to be grown under irrigation for the cultivation to make business sense.

“The reality is that unless innovative irrigation technologies are introduced, there is likely to be insufficient water to support mass scale operations in the region, particularly in newer cultivation methods such as hydroponics,” the report says.

Without conducive growing conditions, Africa is unlikely to produce the high quality cannabis demanded in the mature markets of Canada, Europe and the US.

Challenges of getting expertise for commercial cultivation and processing facilities are also factors in the face of erratic power supply across the continent.

The cost of a cannabis processing facility ranges from $2 million to $10 million. However, National Frontiers Data says smaller units costing between $200,000 and $500,000 are available from Australia, the EU and North America.

On the sales end, analysts say the actual market for medicinal cannabis is not yet known despite the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases in Africa like hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, diabetes, cancer, liver and renal diseases and HIV/Aids, as well as mental health disorders. They also warn that use of cannabis solutions in treatments could be disrupted at any stage by advances in technology.

Nathan Emery, the CEO of Precision Cannabis Therapeutics Zimbabwe, is quoted by Prohibition Partners as saying that the medicinal use of cannabis would spread rapidly in Africa given the quick adoption of plant based treatments such as the African wild potato and the Moringa tree.

Markets with high pharmaceutical imports such as Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco are considered to be ripe for use of cannabis as medicine so long as its cost is close to current spending on health. With many countries in Africa now pursuing universal health insurance schemes, the market could expand significantly.