One On One

Q & A – Moleboheng Semela

Cannabis production has the potential to boost South Africa’s economy if more players are allowed to participate in this industry that is fast growing across the globe. Described as the “green gold” cannabis could create thousands of jobs from the primary production where people can be employed in the growing of the crop, through to secondary production involving processing of the crop into different products including essential oils and various medicinal products. It’s estimated the crop can contribute about R27 billion towards the country’s economy per annum. The Weekly’s Martin Makoni spoke to the Cannabis Development Council of South Africa (CDCSA) Secretary General Moleboheng Semela about the potential of the crop and challenges faced by farmers trying to enter this lucrative industry. Excerpts:

Many people trying to enter cannabis production are complaining that there is too much red-tape in securing permits and that the terms and conditions for the actual production are too restrictive, how would you like to see these issues being addressed?

At the end of the deliberations during the two-day Cannabis Expo held in Bloemfontein this week, it was agreed that we should have a way forward in which we should have more engagements with the government so that it understands the challenges faced by potential cannabis producers and how they would want to see the playing field being levelled to allow more players to take part, particularly black farmers. We want the conditions to be less restrictive because presently, the law is not very clear on cannabis farming. Very few black people presently own land, so we want more land to be released by government to black farmers so that they can go into more serious production. The industry has a lot of potential to turnaround the economy and create thousands of jobs.

What would you say are some of the major issues that have come up regarding cannabis production during deliberations at the Expo?

We agreed that as the Free State we should develop a provincial strategy looking at how we can position ourselves and optimise production in this lucrative industry. The Premier’s Office agreed that it will formalise the strategy towards cannabis production in the province and the technical team that will be working on the legislative processes, the value chain and other issues will immediately start working so that we can have a clear-cut position as a province. We had people from across the country as well as neighbouring countries attending and we also had exhibitions. The outcome has been quite positive and we look forward to seeing some of the proposals made here being implemented.

What are some of the challenges raised by delegates to the expo, what would they want to see happening for better cannabis production?

They raised concerns at the contradictions in South Africa’s laws at the present moment. For example, the law talks about the right to use for private use for adults only, but given the medicinal uses of cannabis, what about the kids suffering from ailments like asthma and fits epilepsy? They also have a right to it but the law doesn’t allow that, or it’s not very clear on that. We are no longer just talking about smoking. We are done with that. There are more uses to the crop. Cannabis is hugely underestimated in this part of the world. We now want to talk about the actual value chain. If my child is sick, they should have a right to cannabis medicines. There should be no restrictions. There is also need for training and support for cannabis farmers. Acquiring licences remains a nightmare, we want that to change because this a very lucrative industry that could help turnaround the country’s economic fortunes.

What are some of the costs involved when one considers going into cannabis production?

It’s quite expensive for new entrants. It costs about R24 000 to get the licence. To build a master business plan for cannabis medicinal laboratory, it’s hundreds of thousands of rands and most importantly, most people don’t have land. So, there is an urgent need for financial support for people to get started. We cannot afford to let big corporates take over that industry while we watch.        

So, what sort of response did you receive from government during the expo given the importance and urgency of the issues raised?

The response was quite positive. They have promised to include everyone, especially the Rasta community. Most members have been brutalised and marginalised. I think it’s important for us to realise that if we are not very careful, the same thing that happened during the gold rush, where blacks were marginalised, could happen with cannabis. We could be left out, yet this is a crop that we have always grown and utilised. We know its value and uses quite well. It’s certainly time to act now and deliver. That’s all we want now.

How difficult is at the moment to go into the actual farming, what are the challenges at hand?

With farming, the department of health is issuing research permits and the medical licences. We have realised that many people have not been getting the correct information and some conmen were taking advantage of that. So, as the CDCSA, we are assisting people get the right information and we will be hosting training sessions that will be conducted by SAPRA (South African Health Products Regulatory Authority), it’s part of the department of health. The idea is to assist our people with all the basic information like the completing of forms, simplifying some of the technical terms for them, the costs involved, the security required for cannabis production and other issues. Our people need the information because most still don’t know where to go for applications. It’s important for people to know that the departments of health is the only one issuing licences for cannabis production in the country. People mustn’t be conned.

If people in the Free State are allowed to go full scale with cannabis production like you have with maize production, for example, what’s the potential for economic growth?

There is great potential, hence we want locals to play a leading role in cannabis production. You don’t throw away anything from a cannabis plant. The seeds, the leaves, the roots and the stem, all have different uses. We want the government to assist people to get into cannabis production so that we won’t be exploited by foreign companies. We have the right soils and climatic conditions for the crop here in Africa and we should take advantage of that. We should develop our economy around that. Even if one doesn’t have a licence, they can still be involved in other areas like the recycling. You can also go into energy production with cannabis. There are so many opportunities.

Who exactly can go into cannabis farming, can anybody do it, or you need some special training?

It depends on what you want to grow the crop for. If it’s for something specific, you need to know the seed that you are growing and the kind of product that it will give you. For example, if you want to grow the long hemp for fabric, it means you must plant a variety that will give a long fibre that you can turn into fabric or textiles. So, we need to assist our people to know all these things. But if it’s for personal use, you can grow any seed and in seven days, it’s up and you can start taking care of it. You can take the leaves to make your tea or to smoke, for example.

About how many people have shown interest in growing the crop in the Free State and the country at large?

We have a lot of people. As the CDCSA, we have about 300 farmers in the province that have shown interest and are in contact with us. We have been doing workshops around the province and that’s where these people are coming from. About 38 of them have attempted applying for permits and one has been successful after meeting the criteria. The person is based in Sasolburg. We also have companies that have submitted applications and we hope they will have them in time for this planting season. We are hoping that more and more people come forward so that we put pressure on government to finalise the legislative process. Nationally, we are looking at about 20 000 farmers that have shown interest. Some are even growing the crop already before getting the permits and licences.