Africa ranks second after America in terms of marijuana production and consumption, according to the United Nations World Drug Report 2019.
Despite being illegal in most countries, the plant is still widely cultivated for cultural or social reasons.
This cultivation experience, together with weather conditions and cheap labor, have placed Africa in the spotlight of investors, who see the continent as the next global breadbasket for medical cannabis.
Africa is a market that is often overlooked in the global cannabis landscape for various reasons, such as the illegality of the plant across the continent and the poor economic conditions in many African countries. But it is a place with the potential to become a huge market for medical cannabis in the long term, due to the large population and favorable climate, which makes growing this plant easier than in neighboring Europe.
A report by consulting firm Prohibition Partners suggests that by 2023, the cannabis market in Africa could reach $ 7.1 billion (€ 6.3 billion). Most of this value is assigned to the recreational market, with the estimate of the medicinal market being much lower: around 800 million dollars (710 million euros) and around 420,000 patients.
The UN estimates that over 38,000 tons of cannabis are produced in Africa every year, resulting in a most lucrative black market. In Morocco alone, and according to the Moroccan Network for the Industrial and Medicinal Use of Cannabis cited by Prohibition Partners, the clandestine cannabis industry is valued at $ 10 billion (€ 8.8 billion) and employs 800,000 people.
Of the 54 countries on the African continent, only three (Lesotho, South Africa and Zimbabwe) allow medical use of marijuana, while Zambia is waiting to enact a law that allows it. Malawi is also the last African country to consider legalizing therapeutic cannabis, as its tobacco industry, its largest source of foreign exchange, has greatly declined due to anti-tobacco campaigns.
But no African country has clear legislation allowing recreational use. For example, in South Africa, recreational use is illegal, but cannabis has been decriminalized for private cultivation and consumption. In Egypt, recreational use is illegal, but tolerated. In Morocco, although it is also illegal, the medical and recreational use ban is often not enforced. In other countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria, cannabis is cultivated illegally but massively, generally for export to other neighboring countries.
Still, winds of hope blow from the southernmost part of the continent. And it is that the first country that allows legal cultivation is Lesotho, a small mountainous landlocked nation that has a favorable climate, abundant water and fertile soil for the cultivation of the best medicinal cannabis.
Lesotho is a landlocked constitutional monarchy, completely surrounded by South Africa, with a population of 2 million. Cannabis cultivation is ingrained in their culture, as it is estimated that around 70% of the cannabis that reaches South Africa is cultivated in the fields of the kingdom. But Lesotho, in particular, has attracted the attention of foreign investors due to the possibility of growing cannabis for export.
In 2017, the Kingdom of Lesotho was the first African nation to legalize the cultivation and export of medicinal cannabis, allowing many farmers who previously cultivated for the black market to see their activity legitimized. With international companies seeking low-cost production and the government implementing the right conditions, Lesotho hopes to use the pioneer advantage to help boost local employment and international investment. Thus, after the initial licenses were granted in 2018, several international firms quickly obtained the right to cultivation through a series of acquisitions.
Last year, Canadian Canopy Growth Corp. acquired Daddy Cann Lesotho, which has a license to grow, manufacture and export cannabis for a deal valued at nearly $ 30 million. Canadian Supreme Cannabis also owns Medigrow Lesotho, a producer of cannabis oil.
Now, the Toronto-based company White Sheep Corp. has started a cannabis cultivation facility on the outskirts of the capital Maseru with the capacity to produce 58,200 kg a year, once it is fully operational.
In this way, Lesotho is about to become one of the world's leading suppliers of cannabinoids for global export, thanks to its high altitude, low humidity and sunny climate, in addition to political stability, the pro-cannabis stance and the experienced workforce of its inhabitants.
Zimbabwe became the second country in Africa to legalize cannabis cultivation for medical and scientific purposes in April 2018, also hoping to take advantage of a multi-million dollar industry. The health minister said that individuals and companies could apply for five-year licenses, which would allow growing, transporting and selling cannabis, although products can only be imported and exported from Robert Mugabe International Airport.
But just two months after the announcement, Zimbabwean officials halted the licensing process after the government received more than 350 applications offering widely differing estimates of how much land it would take to grow cannabis and how much money could be obtained from the plots.
Zimbabwe has currently resumed the process and is about to license 37 producers. In fact, in May 2019 the first legal cannabis farm in the nation was approved: a 10-hectare cultivation in a prison (the multinational Ivory Medical obtained this first license). This prison was chosen because of its high security, and Ivory plans to expand the crops by an additional 80 hectares. The company is leasing the space to the government.
Now things can change. Although legislative changes in Zimbabwe are still incipient, the granting of the first medicinal cannabis license will allow them to demonstrate the multiple benefits of the plant both for consumption and for local economies. Something that, without a doubt, could guarantee a better future for its inhabitants.
The opposite case can be seen in South Africa, which looks towards its internal market of 60 million inhabitants. South Africa decriminalized private cultivation and consumption and legalized medical cannabis in February 2017, but it has not started licensing to grow cannabis for medical use until earlier this year. Despite this, CBD therapeutic products are available in South Africa, although almost the entire market is outside legal channels.
But a recent change in South Africa's Drug Law means the country is the first in Africa to forge a federally approved market to market CBD without a prescription.
Until recently, CBD was considered a Schedule 7 drug substance, which includes substances such as heroin. Now the Health Department has taken a turn by creating a meaningful space for CBD products to be sold to consumers. As of May 23, 2019, CBD moves to List 4 of drugs (those that can be sold by prescription) and all products that contain a maximum daily dose of 20 mg. CBD and are intended to improve overall health are exempt from the regulations of the Drug Act.
In other words, CBD products that contain less than 20 mg. Over-the-counter products will be considered for a daily dose and can be openly marketed in pharmacies, stores and other points of sale.
All products containing a daily dose of more than 20 mg. CBD drugs will continue to be considered a Schedule 4 Schedule Drug substance and will require a prescription to be sold only in pharmacies.
This change has implications for the commercial use of CBD for the manufacture of other products, including food and alcohol. And it's music to the ears of CBD providers for the consumer sector, giving them the opportunity to introduce their products to South Africa more easily.
While these changes mean that the Health Department has relaxed CBD regulation, the exemption applies for just one year, indicating that the government is taking a wait-and-see approach, before firmly committing to a political position on to CBD.
The recent change in CBD legal status, coupled with the issuance of the first three licenses to grow cannabis for medical use earlier this year, mark a changing perspective on the role of cannabis in South Africa that will hopefully pave the way for the expansion of the medicinal market in the near future.