For generations, people in the Eastern Cape of South Africa have made a living growing hemp. You might expect that as the country moves toward legalizing the grow, they’d be first in line to benefit, but that’s not necessarily the case.
The drive from Umthatha to the village of Dikidikini in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province is a scenic journey filled with endless vistas, scattered farmhouses and winding roads that pass through rolling green hills that could easily be mistaken for maize fields – however it is anything but.
“This is cannabis,” my local guide and cannabis activist Greek Zueni tells me. “Everybody here grows it, that’s how they make a living.”
Hemp, colloquially referred to as “umthunzi wez’kukhu,” or, chicken shade, is an intrinsic part of many rural communities in Pondoland, Eastern Cape, and a vital source of income.
In a farmhouse near the river bank, we meet a group of men, women and children tending to a fresh harvest. Their hands are green from plucking cannabis heads all day.
The pungent smell of cannabis hangs heavy in the air. They make jokes while they work – harvesting is a team effort. A huge pile of green heads lies next to them, drying in the midday sun.
For the Nontobeko community member, which is not her real name, growing cannabis is all she has ever known: “I learned how to grow it as an eight-year-old girl,” she says proudly.
“Cannabis is very important to us because it is our livelihood and our source of income. Everything we get, we get through selling cannabis. There are no jobs, our children are just sitting here with us.”
While cannabis may be a way of life for this community, growing it on this scale is illegal.
There are more than 900,000 small-scale farmers in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces who have been growing cannabis for years.
These growers have found themselves on the wrong side of the law many times, but the government’s tough stance on cannabis looks set to change.
It began with a landmark court decision in 2018 that decriminalized the private use, possession and cultivation of cannabis.
Earlier this year, during his State of The Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa said South Africa needed to tap into the multi-billion dollar global cannabis and medical cannabis industry, which he said had the potential to create 130,000 jobs work that they need so much.
While this may be good news for commercial companies, traditional growers in the Eastern Cape feel left behind. The cost of obtaining a license to grow cannabis is too expensive for many.
“The government needs to change its approach and pass laws that are farmer and citizen friendly. Right now, people who have licenses [to grow cannabis] they are rich people,” says Mr Zueni.
“Government should help communities develop so they can compete in the world market. Here is a commodity that grows so easily and organically. We are not jealous, the rich must come in, but please accommodate the poorest of the poor ”, says Mr Zueni.
Last year, the government presented a master plan for the industrialization and commercialization of the hemp plant. It values the local industry, which operates largely in the shadows, at nearly $2bn (£1.6bn).
It seeks to make the South African hemp industry globally competitive and produce hemp products for the international and domestic markets.
Key to the rollout is the Cannabis for Private Purposes Bill, due to be signed into law during the 2022-23 financial year, which provides guidance and rules for consumers and those who want to grow cannabis at home.
It will legalize the cultivation of cannabis and cannabis for medicinal purposes, thus opening up the industry for serious investment and growth. It is also expected to clarify legal gray areas and thereby provide prospective investors with clarity about the future of the South African cannabis market.
While much still remains unclear, it appears that the government is committed to opening up the industry because the economic opportunities are too tempting to ignore. The plans have broad public support, with few dissenting voices.
While the legal framework is still trying to catch up with a rapidly evolving market, many companies are moving forward with the expectation that the law will eventually open up the sector.
As it stands, even though private use has been decriminalized, it is still illegal to buy and sell cannabis and various cannabis products.
However, judging by the proliferation of shops selling cannabis products across the country, the authorities are already turning a blind eye.
Adding to this legal minefield is that it is legal for private companies to grow and export medicinal cannabis to other countries.
“The opportunities for European distribution are great”
One company looking to capitalize on medicinal cannabis is the Labat Africa Group. The Johannesburg Stock Exchange listed company recently acquired Eastern Cape cannabis grower Sweetwater Aquaponics.
Labat director Herschel Maasdorp says the company is seeing significant growth in both Europe and Africa.
It has also been introduced in Frankfurt because “Germany is the biggest market in Europe for the distribution of medicinal cannabis,” he says.
“The opportunities for distribution in Europe are very large. In addition, cross-border, in Africa alone, there is a proposal that we have consolidated in a number of different countries all the way from Kenya, Zambia to Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania, as well as in Zimbabwe.”
Legal cannabis trade on the continent is set to grow to $7 billion as regulation and market conditions improve, says London-based industry analyst Prohibition Partners, says Africa’s top producers by 2023 will be Nigeria with 3 .7 billion, South Africa $1.7 billion, Morocco $900 million, Lesotho $90 million and Zimbabwe $80 million.
In its Global Cannabis Report, Prohibition Partners predicts exponential industry growth worldwide: “Combined global sales of CBD, medical and adult cannabis topped $37.4 billion in 2021 and could grow to $105 billion by in 2026″.
Considering South Africa’s stagnant economic growth and record unemployment, capitalizing on the hemp industry could reap rich rewards.
For Wayne Gallow from Sweetwater Aquaponics, integrating traditional growers into the industry is vital to economic development in the Eastern Cape.
“What we wanted to achieve with our license is not just to grow medicinal cannabis, but to use that license to benefit everyone in the Eastern Cape,” he told the BBC.
He admits that more traditional growers have been left behind as cannabis legislation has moved forward.
“The Pondoland region was synonymous with the supply of cannabis to the whole of South Africa,” he says.
However, the changes in the law had a “detrimental” effect on Pondoland farmers because it meant that everyone could now grow and consume their own cannabis, so they no longer had a market for a previously very lucrative crop.
Even growing cannabis for medicinal export is not feasible for small-scale farmers due to the staggering cost. It requires a license from the South African Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA) which costs approximately $1,465.
In addition to the license fee, to set up a medical cannabis facility you need about $182,000 to $304,000, which is beyond the means of many traditional growers.
However, there is some hopeful news for Eastern Cape farmers. The Pondoland or Landrace strain of the plant, which grows so abundantly in the region, has shown some encouraging results in the treatment of breast cancer.
Sweetwater Aquaponics and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are currently conducting a study, and scientists are optimistic that the strain will yield good results.
It’s still early days, but if the Pondoland strain proves effective, it could be the game-changer indigenous growers are desperately seeking.