Africa’s budding cannabis market

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Farmers distroy cannabis plantations under Moroccan police supervision in the northern Moroccan Larache region, 16 June 2006 Some 134,000 hectares (330,000 acres) of land in Morocco are given over to growing cannabis, the plant from which hashish is derived. AFP PHOTO/ABDELHAK SENNA (Photo by ABDELHAK SENNA / AFP)

Cannabis has been employed in traditional African herbal medicine since time immemorial. Today, much of the world is playing catch-up.

The multi-billion dollar global cannabis industry is booming as companies cite the benefits of medical marijuana for treating pain and inflammation and possibly even soothing mental illness and addictions. The global legal cannabis market could be worth $272bn by 2028, according to the 2018 European Consumer Staples Report from Barclays. 

With countries around the world legalising cannabis for medicinal and even recreational use, no continent is untouched by pro-marijuana reforms. Africa is no exception, as previously strict governments mull deregulation in a bid to diversify their economies and generate foreign exchange earnings.   

Illegal cultivation of the plant is a key source of income for impoverished rural areas of countries such as Morocco, and according to Dallas McMillan, founder and CEO of US firm Rhizo Sciences, Africa is the world’s biggest producer and consumer of cannabis. However, the continent’s legal industry is still in its early stages, lagging far behind its competitors in developed countries.

The industry has the potential to make $7.1bn annually by 2023, European-based cannabis market consultancy Prohibition Partners estimates in its latest Africa Cannabis Report, but a lot of work needs to be done if it is to realise its full potential.  

“Its a volatile industry at the moment,” says Eoin Keenan, a consultant at Prohibition Partners.

“But if African nations introduce pro-business legislation, enforce standards and create high-quality pharmaceutical products there’s no reason why Africa can’t be a major player in the global cannabis industry.”  

Pioneering potential

Much of the world’s cannabis grown for medicinal use is cultivated in the Netherlands and Canada, but creating the right production climate requires plentiful energy and groundwater.   

Warm climates, rich soil, and a long history and expertise in agriculture mean parts of the continent have the potential to be pivotal markets for cultivation, say experts. 

Boosting the continent’s potential as a production hub are its low-cost land and labour with a vast horticultural skill-base. 

Experts believe South Africa has the potential to be the region’s largest medicinal cannabis market, with an estimated industry value of $667m. The wider region is seen as similarly promising.   

“As the market matures and we change the model and optimise how we create a more sustainable and economically viable industry, a lot of this cultivation is going to be outsourced to Africa,” says Keenan.

“There’s a huge value within that market in the long term as Western or North American and European companies look to outsource their cultivation model. There’s going to be a race to the bottom in cultivation as people try to cut costs. Lesotho, Zimbabwe and South Africa are beginning to compete.” 

Yet, despite the domestic popularity of cannabis – 13.2% of the continent’s population are estimated to use it – and Africa’s potential as a major exporter, the drug is still illegal in most African countries.

South Africa, Zimbabwe and Lesotho are the exceptions, having legalised cultivation of medical marijuana. Their governments are also continuing efforts to unlock the potential of their cannabis markets by laying the legal and regulatory groundwork for the sale, transport, manufacture, processing and export of a range of marijuana products. 

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