Very much recently, the media was awash with reports of how a cannabis grower (MG Health) in Lesotho has become the first in Africa to export cannabis to the European Union. This should be read in the context of how Lesotho has always been an active producer of cannabis since pre-colonial times. The government is now attempting to regularize and maximize this cannabis-growing culture to boost the country’s revenues.
Cannabis production has always been an integral part of Lesotho’s sources of hard currency alongside remittances from Basotho miners in South Africa and international aid. Two-thirds of the country’s 2.2 million people constitute the rural peasantry, and they are the ones who mostly partake in cannabis production to augment their finances so that they cover the basics of life such as sending children to school. Cannabis production forms part of Lesotho’s export market (the exports being mainly absorbed by South Africa) and also consumption. Approximately 70% of the marijuana in South Africa has Lesotho as its provenance.
Large quantities of cannabis (called “matekoane” in Sesotho) are produced in Lesotho, with cultivation occurring in almost all parts of the country. This includes small plots in the capital Maseru but significant production is situated in the high mountain zones in the center and east of the country, as well as in the western foothill region. Rural people in Lesotho use marijuana to treat illnesses such as heartburn, high blood pressure, and “nerves” as well as to rid horses and donkeys of parasitic worms (called “papisi” in Sesotho). Apart from serving as traditional medicine, cannabis serves utilitarian/recreational purposes.
Cannabis is Lesotho’s primary cash crop. In 2017, Lesotho became the first country in Africa to grant licences for the cultivation of marijuana for medicinal and scientific purposes. It is against this backdrop of what was de-facto decriminalization around the cultivation of marijuana that the government legalized marijuana production for medicinal and scientific purposes.
Possession and use of marijuana remain illegal in Lesotho, but it remains tolerated because the law is rarely enforced. This signifies how the Lesotho government is hesitant to allow wide-uses of the herb but has de-facto decriminalized it. With cannabis being a primary cash crop, the government will not take any harsh stance towards its usage.
Circa 2017-2018, the Lesotho government licenced five companies to grow medicinal marijuana, with the majority of companies being Canadian. These included Verve Dynamics (it was the first to be granted the licence in 2017), MediGrow Lesotho (which has become the first cannabis producer to export cannabis to Europe), Daddy-Cann, Medi-Kingdom, Pharmaceuticals Development Corp, and Bophelo Bioscience and Wellness PYT.
MediGrow Lesotho is now known as MG Health and it was given C$10 million from Supreme Cannabis (which is Canadian) in exchange for 10% of the business. Supreme intimated that eventually, it desires to export medical cannabis oils to Canada.
Cannabidiol (CBD) oil extracts and other medical cannabis products are becoming immensely popular as countries around the world are relaxing some tough laws on the consumption of cannabis. The global cannabis market totals roughly $340 billion, and CBD is becoming a hit in that financial web.
MG Health harvests a strain of cannabis with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which is the compound that makes people high (the psychoactive effects) to comply with the regulations. They attempt to exclude THC from their products to make CBD the active ingredient in their products. CBD does not get you high but studies have shown it possesses positive health benefits such as relieving symptoms for anxiety and depression, easing inflammation and pain, as well as treating epileptic seizures. It also treats spasms caused by multiple sclerosis.
Under the European Union’s Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) protocol, MG Health was given certification to export cannabis flower as an active pharmaceutical ingredient (API), and this confirms the high demand for CBD in Europe. The exportation is expected to start in June, commencing with Germany and penetrating later into the wider European market. Shipments will be made to the pharmaceutical company Drapalin Pharmaceuticals based in Munich.
In a country where cannabis cultivation is already practice, MG Health has been attracted by the relatively cheap costs of production in Lesotho. The company once revealed that in its start-up phase, it is producing cannabis in Lesotho for about 93 cents a gram, which is less than the $1 or more per gram it says is the norm elsewhere. It also stated that to get plants with thick flowering heads, “growers need controlled temperatures of between 20 and 28 degrees Celsius, plenty of air circulation to prevent mildew growth and, when in bloom, a strict regime of 12 hours of light and an equal measure of the dark.”
Cannabis production, although legal at the issuance of licences, remains a private activity (even for the rural peasantry who maximize on de-facto decriminalization since they do not have the licences). MG Health cultivates at a secluded location about 2,000m above sea level. The company produces 250 kilograms of medical-grade cannabis each month. The output is expected to surge to 100 tons monthly. To meet the certification obligations of the EU’s GMP protocol, MG Health will increase its cultivation area from 5,000 to 16,000 square meters to satisfy the international demand.
The company currently employs 250 people but wants to increase this number to 3,000 people. Nthabeleng Peete, who is the company’s community liaison manager, said that employing 3,000 people is akin to employing “almost the entire population of the community.” “Corporate social responsibility developmental projects will also take off and eventually reduce crime and poverty among the villagers,” she said.
Andre Bothma, who is the chief executive officer remarked, “We are sitting in a rural area where there is hardly any income. More business for the company will create a knock-on effect on the locals too because we also acquire some products and services from the villagers. Some supply us with vegetables, milk, and beans, among other [products]. An increase in the workforce means an increase in the villagers’ income, too.”
With these new developments, Lesotho must remain cautious and prevent the proceeds of cannabis cultivation go into the hands of a few capitalists. These profits should transform Lesotho’s rural peasantry by improving access to basic social services such as health, education, water, power, land, and housing. What is termed “corporate social responsibility” should be treated with caution – the government must see to it that the profits are used to genuinely transform the lives of the Basotho.
The trickle-down effects referred to by MG Health’s officials should not be a remote possibility but an empowering reality. History has shown us that oftentimes, the trickle-down effects quoted by companies remain pipe dreams as the sweetness of profits becomes hard to resist. And the same medical products from cannabis should also be availed to Lesotho and many other African countries to create healthy African populations that are productive. The success of cannabis regulation in Lesotho, gradual as it is, should not be captured by neoliberal interests.