“The historical, geographical, and cultural features of Africa offer a significant contribution in the development of cannabis terroir.”
Gaspard de Villeneuve
Africa has been left behind in the cannabis conversation, in fact, it has been left decades behind. However, the wheel is just about to come full circle as a handful of African countries have begun to initiate reforms towards embracing a plant that has deep roots in the continent.
Cannabis has been cultivated in Africa for hundreds of years with the earliest usage being traced back to Madagascar and the Mediterranean coast, about 1,000 years ago. The psychotropic use of cannabis is believed to have emanated from Africa and was passed on to Europe and America through slave trade. Cannabis was also used for rope, fiber, and medicine. Even though cannabis was later prohibited in most African countries, local communities have continued to cultivate and use it. African landrace strains such as the popular Malawi Gold and Durban Poison have remained popular and sought after through the years.
According to a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2007 report, “the highest cannabis production in the world takes place on the African continent.” Though this might have changed in the last decade, Africa still cultivates tonnes of “illegal cannabis” which is consumed within and beyond the continent. Morocco is currently the largest producer of cannabis resin in the world and it exports to illegal markets in North Africa and Western Europe. The report also noted that “the largest seizures of cannabis herb by authorities in Africa are only second to those made by North American authorities.”
After decades of cannabis prohibition and stigmatization, a wave of legalization has begun sweeping through the continent. Consequently handful of countries have legalized hemp and decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis. With its rich cannabis history and favorable geographical and climatic conditions, Africa seems to be well positioned for a cannabis revolution. As Gaspard de Villenuve notes, time is ripe to begin investing in the African cannabis industry.
Gaspard, who currently resides in Johannesburg, South Africa, is a partner at an investment consulting firm that’s focused on the African market (COBASA). While COBASA focuses on a wide variety of agricultural crops, Gaspard’s interest currently is on the potential of cannabis sativa in Africa. And as he says, time is ripe for Africa to participate meaningfully in the global cannabis marketplace.
Background and debut into the cannabis industry
Gaspard was raised in Africa, between Congo Brazzaville, Madagascar, and Cameroun. He later moved to South Africa for further studies before moving to France where he completed a degree in economics and politics at the University of Montreal.
An earthling by nature, Gaspard has lived and worked in several countries across Africa and Europe in the course of his career. This includes countries such as Colombia, Angola, Zambia, Argentina, UAE, and Kenya. His greatest strength rests in finding agribusiness opportunities and bringing investors on board. In the last five years, he has raised opportunities in agribusiness in 8 African countries for European investors.
How did he find himself in the cannabis industry?
Given that he had spent most of his childhood in different African countries, his parents always encouraged him to “give back to Africa what Africa had given to him.” After a lot of research and consideration, he saw no better way of doing this than through presenting African cannabis to the world. And that is how he wound up playing the role of an intermediary between investors from the northern hemisphere and local cannabis growers in different African countries.
He sets off on a fact finding mission.
Soon after he made the decision to “give back to Africa.” Gaspard took a year off to make connections with key people in the African cannabis industry. This included the locals who have been cultivating cannabis for centuries, people in agribusiness, politicians, as well as local entrepreneurs. During this period, he was able to get all the facts he needed and he was able to build a business case around hemp which he presented to his boss at COBASA. The journey had begun.
An Overview of the Emerging Cannabis Industry in Africa
A handful of African countries have legalized cannabis to some extent. Mostly, this involves the cultivation of hemp for industrial and medical use as well as the decriminalization of cannabis for personal use.
Lesotho was the first country in Africa to legalize both medical and recreational cannabis. Hemp was legalized in four African nations in the last one year, Zambia, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. These are all agribusiness countries that have a huge market for hemp in construction, textile, cosmetic, food, bioplastics, and automobile construction, Gaspard notes.
Most African countries have climatic conditions that favor the cultivation of cannabis outdoors, 12 hours of sunshine and 12 hours of darkness. While parts of Northern America have the same, Africa benefits by being closer to Europe, making it a suitable supplier of cannabis to the northern hemisphere.
Africa also has amazing landrace strains that are high in THC and may offer good genetics that can be exploited for medical use. This includes legendary strains such as Durban Poison, Red Congo, Malawi Gold, Kilimanjaro, and Sinai which can withstand desert-like conditions. Gaspard is particularly optimistic about the potential of Africa emerging as a global supplier of high quality cannabis. He has tiger eyes on Zimbabwe and believes that the country will be producing the best cannabis in the next two decades.
“Zimbabwe will grow the best marijuana in the next twenty years.”
Gaspard de Villeneuve
Zimbabwe legalized hemp back in 2018 and Dr. Zorodzaii Maroveke, a cannabis activist, played a key role in making this happen. The country has a few things going for it, as far as cannabis is concerned. Zimbabwe has a history of success in agribusiness and has for a long time been the “breadbasket” of SADEC. Local farmers have large tracts of farming land and the business climate for investing is just right. “The climatic conditions favor hemp cultivation but a few rules need to be moved to make the political conditions more favorable for the industry,” says Gaspard.
Meeting EUGDR Standards Is An Unrealistic Demand For Africa
As with other industries, the first country to create a legal market for a product sets the rules for the entire global industry. Cannabis was the first G7 country to fully legalize cannabis. Consequently, rules have been set to emulate what applies in Canada. One dominant rule is compliance with EU GMP standards. While this works for European countries, it does not work for Africa, unfortunately.
“Africans are compelled to grow cannabis the same way that it is cultivated in Canada. But conditions are different here, we have a lot of sun here,” Gaspard remarks.
African countries around the equator have very conducive climates and good soil for cultivating cannabis. With 12 hours of sunshine and 12 hours of darkness cannabis can do well outdoors on the African continent.
According to Gaspard, Africa is doing better quality cannabis as compared to what is being produced in the northern hemisphere. However, this cannabis does not meet EU GMP standards. Therefore, Africa cannot export cannabis directly to Europe, unless it complies with EU GMP standards.
Putting together a greenhouse that meets EU GMP standards costs something close to 1 million dollars. This is exorbitant, unnecessary and discriminatory against the African continent with limited financial resources. If Africa is to participate meaningfully in the global cannabis marketplace, these are some of the rules that will need to be adjusted.
A Caveat For Foreign Investors
While time is ripe for foreign investors to explore possibilities for African cannabis, Gaspard advises caution. The first thing that investors looking to venture into the cannabis space in Africa is to change their mindset since things work differently in Africa. It is important to engage with the local communities that have been cultivating cannabis as well as those involved in cannabis activism and local research in order to get a clear picture of the industry. Traditional healers in Africa have used cannabis for centuries and hold the key to indigenous knowledge on the therapeutic potential of cannabis. But as Gaspard notes, it is important to do your due diligence and make sure that you have all your facts right before putting your money on the table.
That was one interesting conversation with Gaspard, and we hope to pick it up from there soon. Those wishing to keep up with what Gaspard and his team at COBASA are doing regarding hemp and cannabis in Africa can do so through their website.