CANNABIS CULTURE – Zimbabwe officials say medical and industrial cannabis is set to overtake tobacco as a major source of export cash by the end of 2021. At present, Zimbabwe is one of the world’s leading producers of Virginia-leaf tobacco.
“This is a historic change for Zimbabwe,” says Anold Soko, an independent agronomist in Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. “Cannabis cultivation, especially cannabis oil unlike tobacco doesn’t deplete fresh water, forests or trigger medical warnings. Cannabis could be to us what oil is to Texas.”
Zimbabwe authorities are forecasting that for the first time in the history of the country´s existence, in 2021 cannabis harvesting and export will reach $1.25 billion in a country where the entire national budget hovers around $4 billion. If this comes to pass, cannabis would have dwarfed tobacco which brings about $500 million yearly. Medical and industrial use cannabis, a buoyant and emerging global commodity, underpins Zimbabwe´s strive to become a middle-income country by 2030, says Mthuli Ncube, who is Zimbabwe´s finance minister.
Tobacco is the past
Zimbabwe, a country the size of Germany, is one of the world´s premier cultivators of tobacco but in 2018 it okayed the planting of cannabis for medicinal and industrial use. Consequently 44 lincense have been issued, says Clive Mphambela, the spokesperson for the country´s finance ministry. “Thirty producers are ready and already carrying out test production.”
He did not disclose the size of cannabis stocks already held by Zimbabwe for shipping abroad.
The new cannabis players
Cannabis players in Zimbabwe have swarmed land, greenhouses and harvest sheds. Firms from as far as Canada and Netherlands (a country idolized for its laissez faire to weed) are partnering with locals to plant acres of weed.
In one rural farming district called Guruve where tobacco cropping is popular, Canadian corporations have fence of 10 000 hectares of prime land to cultivate cannabis and effect a gradual shift. “This is a revolution that is gradual but en-route,” adds Anold Soko.
The issuing of cultivation and export licenses is carried out on an equitable basis, stresses the Zimbabwe Investment and Development Agency, a state body that is at the forefront of welcoming foreign cannabis entrepreneurs.
The takedown of tobacco
There no coincidence that Zimbabwe wants to wean itself of tobacco and slot cannabis as a replacement. Several reasons place cannabis as a cash crop of the future and tobacco less so, says Dr. Gerald Felani, an infectious disease researcher in Harare the capital.
“First the World Health Organization is at the forefront worldwide to suppress the use of tobacco which is awfully harmful to lungs,” says Dr. Gerald Felani. “In 2015, the WHO sounded alarm bells that 20% of Zimbabwe´s youth between the ages of 13 and 15 are tobacco smokers. This is why tobacco advertising has been banned here and medical cannabis, cannabis oil etc. is clearly attracting interest instead.”
The tobacco in Zimbabwe, unlike cannabis is blamed for increased draining of fresh water lakes, swamps and a pillaging of forests. “Tobacco unlike cannabis is an environmental headache,” explains Anold Soko the agronomist. 80 % of Zimbabwe´s small scale planters of tobacco crop are behind a wave that has seen 5, 3 million trees (in the last two decades) cut down to free more land and increase profits. Unlike cannabis, flue-cured tobacco is energy-demanding and gobbles so much heat (via burning forest logs) in order to suck out the moisture and prepare leaves for export.
Medical weed is less risky
So Zimbabwe has latched on to latest UN reports (December 2020) that medical cannabis is actually healthier. The UN Commission for Narcotics Drug voted to reclassify cannabis as a less dangerous drug and thus opening way for increased therapeutic use of the drug globally.
“This is fantastic news, I mean the bio-pharmaceutical properties of cannabis,” adds Dr. Felani. “This was not entirely a surprise though. Here in Zimbabwe when we see our patients, we have always spoken in favor of cannabis as an organic way to decrease the likes of chronic back pain or headaches.”
Is cannabis over-ambitious?
Is Zimbabwe´s plan to push cannabis as its chief cash crop realistic? Observers feel the country has quite a lot of nearby competitors who could slice away the same overseas cannabis markets that Zimbabwe is eyeing.
Malawi, a neighbor to Zimbabwe, and her too a world-class producer of tobacco, has made serious moves to ramp up the commercial production and export of medicinal cannabis. Her parliament in November 2020 allowed the cultivation of hemp and cannabis for medicinal use.
“So has nearby South Africa; so has Mozambique; so has Lesotho. All these are our neighbours by geography. We would be naïve as Zimbabwe to assume that our neighbours are not eyeing the same cannabis markets in Canada, China or Europe,” thinks Brian Semwa, an economist for the Zimbabwe Public Food Observatory an independent local think tank in Harare.
Aiming to scoop $1, 25 billion from medical cannabis exports could be an ambition too large, too soon, it could be an overestimate, Brian says. “Cannabis is farmed legally in increasing number of countries globally. It´s sold in grams not tons. As more countries come aboard, prices will tumble anytime.”
Embracing the cannabis challenge
However, weed growers in Zimbabwe are not deterred by rivals on the global supply markets. Up to $46 million worth of cannabis is on track to be harvested in Zimbabwe monthly, adds Clive Mphambela, the spokesperson for the country´s finance ministry. This could actually be an under-estimate because the potential is vast, he added.
“We are confident of cannabis as a future cash-generator that in 2021 we will begin collecting a cannabis tax levy in Zimbabwe,” announced Mr. Mthuli Ncube Zimbabwe´s finance minister when he presented the country´s budget for 2021.
About the author: Nyasha Bhobo is a freelance journalist. Her beats are public finance, women freedoms and agriculture stories.