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Lesotho makes its mark in history as the first African country to legalize cannabis for medicinal use. The move is in line with the government’s agricultural strategy. It hopes the move will raise revenue to help fund basic infrastructures such as roads, electricity, and water pipes.
How has this legislative development affected this African kingdom? Kekeletso Lekaota, a cannabis farmer, tells of her change in fortunes, all thanks to cannabis in collaboration with MG health.
An advertisement in the local newspaper for a cannabis grower was where it all began. The 27-year old came from no experience to now being a trainer for MG health. MG health is a supplier of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis products. Lekaota trains other farmers on how to cultivate cannabis for MG health.
African kingdom expanding globally
Lesotho is a tiny mountainous kingdom bordered on all sides by South Africa. This kingdom is the residence of MG health’s farm and oil extraction facility.
Lekaota spends her days at work tending rows of the cannabis plant for harvest. She tells how pruning the plant needs a soft touch and delicate hands. “I didn’t know what cannabis was,” Lekaota said, but when applying for the job did she recognize cannabis as dagga. Dagga is the local name for weed derived from the Khoisan languages.
Marijuana has been long used as medicine in Lesotho by the native Basotho people. The locals abandoned the traditional plantation crops (maize and sugarcane) to grow marijuana. Many local families see weed is easier to grow and lucrative, and the region’s fertile soils are an added advantage.
The illicit cultivation and sale to recreational drug users have earned extra income for the farmers. Allowing them to cover basic costs like sending their children to the school.
Pushing past the politics
The Lesotho government embarked to spur the development of the legal plantations. It hopes the lucrative global medical cannabis industry will widen its tax base and create jobs. The government receives its revenue majorly from exporting diamonds water and wool. The nation’s majority (about 2.2million, two-thirds the population) live in rural villages and depend on subsistence farming for their livelihood.
Cannabis companies investing globally
Foreign investors, including Canadian companies Canopy Growth Corp, Aphria Inc., and Supreme Cannabis Co. jumped into the lifetime opportunity that opened up in 2018- which is the year Lesotho issued its licenses for the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes. The Canadian companies invested tens of millions of dollars to establish facilities. The companies couldn’t resist the low cost of production.
MG health, Lesotho’s biggest commercial producer, sold a 10% stake of its business (worth $7.7 million) to supreme cannabis. Supreme said its goal is to export medical cannabis oils from Lesotho to Canada. MG health, formerly Medigrow Lesotho, intends to employ up to 3000 workers locally. The chief executive officer Andre Bothma shared the ambitious plans to scale up from the current 350 employed. The idea was of course in line with the company’s goal to reach full production in the years to come.
The company exports CBD (Cannabidiol) rich oil extracts and other medicinal products majorly to South Africa. It’s also working to tap the markets in Europe, Australia as well as the Middle East. The company harvests a strain with low levels of THC (the psychoactive compound) in adhering to the regulations. CBD bites off a good chunk of the $340 billion global cannabis market.
Companies are on their toes as rules on cannabis slack around the globe. Their aim is low-cost regions for supply – increasing the profit margins. MG health claims at their start-up phase in Lesotho it’s producing at about 93 cents a gram. This is a significant saving from $1 or more per gram that is the norm in other areas. But there may be competition from other regions like Colombia and Jamaica that are known to be cheap. Other African countries may also open up their legislative borders and with cheaper production rates.
Behind the scenes of MG Health
MG health shared what it takes for the successful cultivation of plants with thick flowering heads;
· Temperatures between 20 and 28 degrees Celsius
· Good air circulation to inhibit the growth of mildew
· 12 hours of light and dark when in bloom
Also, as a medical product, the oil has to be standardized and uncontaminated. External parties need to be involved in quality control testing. MG health, for example, contracts Lucan laboratories Ltd for its quality tests.
Illegal growers in Lesotho have been inspired by the thriving legal industries. They produce strains with strong psychoactive effects and sell to South Africans. Their business is riddled with many shortcomings as they have to grow in remote areas and bribe authorities to keep transacting.
Kotsoana Clementi grows weed illegally in his village, that’s about a 1.5 hours’ drive from the capital (Maseru). The 43-year old says he would like to do legal business with the Canadian cannabis companies. Clementi operates in his small stone house without electricity.
Clementi’s business isn’t as sophisticated and well defined as the big companies. He harvests his weed between March and May. Using a paraffin lamp and rounded spoon, he seals hundreds of packets of weed. Clementi sells 380 packets a day at 15 Rand ($1) each pack pocketing him almost $400. However, he only keeps 60% of his income as the rest is distributed for bribes (border police) and drug mules.
Clementi says that if he would secure an investor, then the whole village would have work. He insisted he would like to be in charge of the business, but the villagers could have a 2-3% stake.