Medical cannabis in Africa (3): pharmacopoeia versus industry

The production of medical cannabis in Africa swings between traditional pharmacopoeial practices and industrial innovation. Lesotho is exemplary of this transition from culture to industry.

Since September 2017, following legalisation, some African countries have been engaged in the production and export of medical cannabis.

Production licenses and mobilization of investors are all benefits for national economies and the promotion of the image of countries. These countries, poorly ranked on the economic development index, the interface of GDP per capita, the human development indicator (HDI) and the human poverty indicator (HPI), are factors that attract these countries to the potential market for medical cannabis and the financial volumes that it can generate.

The stakes are high, in the United States, the legal cannabis market is estimated to be worth $ 12 billion per annum. In 2018, the leading therapeutic cannabis company in Canada was listed on the stock exchange for $ 10 billion. The sector expects a strong increase in demand and with the global market valued at $ 150 billion US dollars today which should peak at $ 272 billion US dollars in 2028. This is a good reason to multiply the number of producing countries, in Asia, Africa or the pharmacopoeias listing the therapeutic use of medicinal plants that are part of national cultures and traditions.

In Africa as in Asia, the medical use of plants including cannabis is part of traditional medicine defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the "sum of knowledge, skills and practices based on Indigenous theories, beliefs and experiences from different cultures, explainable or not, used in the maintenance of health, as well as in the prevention, diagnosis, amelioration or treatment of physical and mental illness”.

However, how can we go from a customary pharmacopoeia to the industrial production of a plant for medical use? In this transition, Lesotho is the example. On July 23, 2020, “Radio France International” published a report on this African pioneer of medical cannabis, pointing out some significant issues in the transition from traditional culture to legal culture.

Tradition: A three-hour drive from the capital Maseru, a farmer has been growing corn for 22 years. Between the rows of cobs grows what he calls Lesotho's green gold, cannabis, in its recreational form - rich in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). In a small shelter, he saves the precious harvest, the sale of which allows him, in particular to finance the studies of his children. For him, as for many farmers, green gold is a means of survival. In his eyes, the plant could even be a way to lift the country out of poverty.

However, in today’s Lesotho, the activity of this modest farmer remains criminal. As is the business of this smuggler who buys the farmer's crop to transport it illegally to neighboring South Africa. He also feeds his children with this livelihood and he too risks a lot and must constantly evade the authorities.

Legality: 30 kilometers away, the company Medigrow, which has well understood the African contribution to the global market, has attempted another adventure, that of cannabis sativa rich in cannabidiol for medical use. After government legalization, it took the leap that separates pharmacopoeia and its traditional practices from industrial innovation.

Three years after launching its operations in Lesotho, the company is developing investments in several companies in Zimbabwe, South Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo, Jamaica, Madagascar, Lebanon, Malawi, Congo, Botswana, Tanzania.

In Lesotho, the company began by cultivating medical cannabis in greenhouses built at high altitudes. On 5,000 square meters, eighteen greenhouses houses the medicinal plant with promising products. Their surface could be increased to 95,000 square meters. Here, no small shelter at the bottom of the garden. Security measures are strict and walking between the 3,600 feet of cannabis first involves passing many checkpoints.

The production process is far from the empirical know-how of the farmer. When harvesting, the plants are stripped and then put in a dryer before being crushed in a milling machine which turns them into powder. A technique using carbon dioxide extracts the oil from the cannabis plant.

It is indeed a high-tech industry. The company has invested several million dollars to build the infrastructure, buy the first seeds and recruit experienced workers. The two tons of accumulated biomass will produce a thousand liters of cannabis oil, one unit of which is estimated to be worth between $ 7,000 and $ 35,500. A price that justifies the designation of green gold, another kind of liquid gold. A question remains. Will small producers be allowed to produce, and under what conditions, the legal version of green gold?