Lesotho’s medical cannabis revolution
SA’s tiny landlocked neighbour pioneers ‘green gold’ industry in Africa
Vast white greenhouses sit high up on the slopes of Lesotho’s Marakabei town, hidden from view.
It is not fruit or vegetables, however, growing under the 18 plastic covers, but thousands of cannabis plants.
The cannabis is grown legally by the Lesotho-Canadian company Medigrow and is regulated by the government.
“We have three rows that contain 1,200 plants each.
“That’s 3,600 plants across the whole structure,” Medigrow’s head of production, Albert Theron said, gazing proudly over the crop.
In 2017, the tiny landlocked kingdom of 2.1-million people decided to tap into the booming medical dagga industry, becoming the first country in Africa to allow the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
To meet legal standards, most traces of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – the main psychoactive constituent causing dagga’s intoxicating effects – are removed from the seeds.
The remaining medical version is primarily made of the non-psychoactive substance, cannabidiol (CBD), and can only be 0.03% THC.
Medigrow has invested $19.3m (about R286.9m) in cannabis-growing facilities around the capital, Maseru.
A heliport was also being built to ensure the cannabis – commonly referred to as “green gold” – was shipped safely and swiftly, head of operations Relebohile Liphoto said.
The investment is spurred by the industry’s positive outlook.
The global market for medical cannabis is estimated at $150bn (R2.2-trillion) and could reach $272bn (R4-trillion) in 2028, according to Barclays Bank.
“At the moment we have almost 2,000 kilos of biomass and we are going to produce more than 1,000 litres of CBD oil,” Liphoto said.
“Depending on the market, we can sell cannabis oil at between $6,000 [R89,000] and $21,000 [R312,000] per litre.”
Nicknamed “Kingdom in the Sky”, Lesotho is the only country in the world whose entire territory sits higher than 1,400m above sea level.
Deputy health minister Manthabiseng Phohleli said the legalisation of cannabis presented a huge opportunity for the country.
“It attracts investors.
“So far we have around 10 businesses operating in the territory,” she said.
Entirely surrounded by South Africa, Lesotho is also one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 159 out of 189 in the latest UN Human Development Index.
Unemployment is high, public services are scant and almost a quarter of the population is infected with HIV.
The government charges ß30,000 (about R491,000) for a one-year renewable licence to grow cannabis.
But the cost is too steep for most locals, and the market is dominated by foreign companies, mainly from Canada and the US.
Mothiba Thamae has been growing apples, peaches and raisins on 7.5 hectares of land for more than two decades.
He cannot afford the “green gold” licence.
“We hoped the government would give small Basotho farmers the opportunity to cultivate [cannabis] legally. Unfortunately they did not,” he said.
Year-long sunshine and fertile soils make Lesotho ideal for cannabis plants.
Known as “matekoane” in Sesotho, it has been grown for centuries in rural areas.
“The first historical trace of matekoane dates back to the 16th century,” Laurent Laniel, a researcher at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, said.
“The Koena [people] are believed to have settled in Lesotho around 1550 by buying land from San groups in exchange for marijuana.”
Cannabis remains an important source of revenue for many small-scale farmers.
Shasha owns a corn field in the centre of the country, on which he has also been growing cannabis illegally for around 20 years.
“The vegetables feed my family. Cannabis money is a bonus – it allows me to survive and pay for my children’s education,” Shasha said.
He sells his “matekoane” to a network of dealers like Jama, who smuggles up to 80kg of dagga across the border to South Africa each month.
“That yields between ß400 and ß500 [between R6,500 and R8,200],” Jama said.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 70% of dagga consumed in SA is grown in Lesotho, making dagga the country’s third largest source of revenue.