African Cannabis Landscape: Guest Blog

African Cannabis Landscape: Guest Blog

In today’s blog, CannTech guest writer Jessica Steinberg explores the African cannabis landscape. In this first part of a three part series, Jessica offers an insightful overview of regional history and developments.

“Africa cannabis”: Beyond Google

A simple Google search of ‘Africa cannabis’ opens photos of two kinds: 1. Maps of the continent colored in with green graphics of cannabis leaves and 2. Fields of cannabis plants and zoomed-in images of cannabis flowers. The gallery could easily be mistaken for searches for Europe, North America, Latin America or Asia, just maybe not Antarctica.

The searchable representation is similar across continental divides. Consider that there are various regions with deeply embedded histories of cannabis use, cultural connections to the plant and years of illicit cultivation, distribution and consumption. This story might as well be translated in 70+ languages because it is something many of us have read before.

Yet a continental analysis does not reveal much about regional and local dynamics. At risk of romanticizing any market, and getting lured in by the exoticism of certain geographies, it’s worthwhile to explore the elements that make this region unique.

African biodiversity
“There is no one climate that defines Africa.”

African biodiversity and cannabis cultivation

The land across Africa is composed of coastal waters, dense jungles, mountainous ranges, flatlands and great lakes. There are seasons of treacherous rainfall, equatorial and tropical heat and drought-ridden deserts. There is no one climate that defines Africa. There’s not even one environment that strictly defines each individual country’s climate for that matter. 

Meanwhile, arguments, some just and others not, have been made that the climate in the region is ideal for cannabis cultivation. 

Making a generalization as broad as this one about climate is like saying McDonald’s makes the best fries. The reality is that yes, the fast-food chain makes fries, and, to some people, yes, they may make the best fries. However, not everyone LOVES the golden arches and their fried glory (e.g. I’m more of a sweet potato fry kinda gal and my best pals either go for waffle fries or the chunky-greasy ones).

Before we get too hungry, let’s get back to the climate issue across Africa. Appreciating the above analogy denotes that there are some African countries that have an ideal (micro)climate for cultivation. Due to the size of the region, there are also places that are simply more challenging for cultivation purposes. Understanding the African cannabis landscape necessitates understanding the vastness of the region.

“Understanding the African cannabis landscape necessitates understanding the vastness of the region.”

The biodiversity is as abundant as the local indigenous knowledge. No one is going on a safari around the pyramids, yet that contrast would reveal the richness of the land and the people. 

It’s no wonder that there are records of cannabis use in Africa dating back before the years that we can count! Using the plant as a herbal remedy, cultural rite or a social experience can be traced across the region. The plant grew prior to people creating policies around it. Facts and figures about the number of plants, consumption rates and medical uses, however, are far and few in between compared to the modern-day stats.

Modern Africa and the Cannabis Industry

The 21st century version of this highlights how Africa, as a whole, contributes around 38,000 tons of (illegal) cannabis annually, according to the UN. This scale of production does not easily translate into the market size or potential. 

In fact, the relaxation of cannabis laws in this part of the world is met with great resistance, especially at the international level at the UN. For those countries that have dipped their toes in Canadian water, new licit opportunities are on the horizon, and many are in search of economic development. 

African cannabis landscape
Countries across the African continent are weighing legal cannabis

The legal cannabis conversation caught attention in 2013 with forms of legislation passing in Malawi and almost passing in South Africa. As momentum built, lobbying groups came into formation in 2015 in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Political groups voiced interest in Ghana from 2015 and into 2016 (although the country does not enjoy legalization to this day).

By 2017, cannabis research reached the Kingdom of eSwatini, and cultivation for medical uses reached Lesotho. Legislation was considered in Zambia the same year, and guidelines for cultivation, processing and manufacturing medical cannabis reached South Africa.

Moving into 2018, the list of countries with legal frameworks hit a whopping three. The second country to hop on the bandwagon in Africa was Zimbabwe; they legalized cultivation for research purposes and medical purposes.

Although there are plenty of rewards for legalization, no one’s getting a medal. But, South Africa took third place in regards to legalization in Africa.

Whilst it isn’t a race to claim ‘first place,’ the green rush go-ers may admit otherwise. The amount of foreign investment and joint ventures established that year spread like wildfire, especially considering the relative scale of opportunities within a restricted legal framework.

Forecast for African Cannabis

 Now in present-day, the dominoes are falling, in theory. Legal processes include bureaucracy and there’s no evidence-based way to confidently predict what may happen by the end of Q4 2019.

With that said, in the magic ball of consideration, countries such as Morocco, Kenya, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria offer short-term prospects. 

The future role of Africa and its 54 countries that comprise the continent within the global cannabis industry is rather uncertain. Cannabis is a long-term play as the paradigm around the plant shifts.

The African cannabis landscape includes a mix of a globalized local and a politicalized profit. This context is multifaceted in terms of alternative incomes and profit, as well as foreign investment and establishing a global cannabis trade. There is a lot at stake, for all parties involved.

This three-part series will dive deeper into the economic opportunity and obstacles and some of the nuances of particular markets from a cultural and structural point of view. 

Author bio Jessica Steinberg
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