Cannabis, agrarian change and crisis: contested livelihoods in southern Africa

The Cannabis Africana project team recently participated at an international conference on drugs and disorder. The three day virtual conference was hosted by SOAS, University of London, from the 14th to the 16th of February 2022. Our paper drew from ongoing research on cannabis and its impact on socioeconomic development in Africa. The paper highlighted the developments in the cannabis sector in southern Africa, and our analysis of the implications of the developments in countries setting up the legal markets for cannabis. The Cannabis Africana: Drugs and Development project focuses on the history of cannabis and its impact on socio-economic development in Africa. The research is guided by four key questions:

(1) To provide an historical account of cannabis in sub-Saharan Africa;

(2) To understand the contemporary place, purpose and perceived utility of cannabis in sub-Saharan Africa;

(3) To explore the varied cultures of consumption around cannabis in 4 select sub-Saharan countries; and

(4) To assess the impact of drug policy on cannabis production, distribution and use.

Our paper highlighted the long history of cannabis in Africa, and the deterioration of legal agrarian and non-agrarian livelihoods. It pointed out that despite the banning of cannabis in many African countries since the 1920s, the drug crop played and continues to play a role in livelihoods of many on the continent. Further, it noted that although criminalised by the state many people, some of whom cannabis is a key source of livelihood, brave the risks to engage in its production and trade. Faced with arrest and jail time on one hand, and failing to feed and care for their families, on the other, they choose to take the risks and produce and trade in cannabis. For them alternative choices are limited, while for some they are non-existent. Thus, for some involvement in cannabis is not rebellion but a political economy of the stomach and survival.

In recent years there have been changes to cannabis laws and regulations in some countries, especially in southern Africa. Lesotho was the first to legalise cannabis for medical, scientific and industrial purposes in 2017. Since then Zimbabwe, South Africa, Uganda, Malawi, Zambia, Ghana, Eswatini, Rwanda and Morocco have legalised cannabis for medical and scientific purposes. South Africa, however, went further to legalise private production by adults for personal consumption – following a Constitutional Court ruling after activists challenges the government’s laws on cannabis. The countries want to benefit from the fast-growing legal global market for cannabis estimated by Fortune Business Insights to have been worth worth US$28.266 billion in 2021, and projected to grow to US$197.74 billion by 2028. In a context where the agrarian economies in Africa are either stagnating or in recession under conditions of neoliberal capitalism, there is optimism that cannabis may provide the needed stimulation for economic growth.

How do we make the emerging industry inclusive and beneficial for smallholder producers/marginalised? What role can the poor producers play in shaping the policy framework for the emerging industry to make it inclusive and contribute to livelihoods of the poor? What are implications of current changes [in cannabis regulation] for agrarian reform/transformation in southern Africa, and Africa in general? These are questions that our paper asked, questions that seek to put small producers at the centre of the conversation. It is the small producers who have been custodians of cannabis over many decades, and any model of cannabis industry that does not benefit them would have failed to make use of the comparative advantage African countries have.

Our questions emerge out of observations we are making in southern Africa as countries introduce models for production of cannabis for medical and scientific purposes. Of concern is the risk of corporate capture of the industry and the exclusion of small producers from the emerging lucrative cannabis industry. This risk come about as a result of the current model which offer production licences to agribusinesses (including international ones), not small farmers. The exclusion is moderated by the costly licence fees which many small farmers cannot afford. In Lesotho, it was reported that a licence for production of cannabis cost M5 million (approximately US$330 000 today). The price hike was justified by the government as a deterrent for those engaging in speculative behaviour. In Zimbabwe the reported licence fees range between US$5 000 & US$50 000 with South African licences costing around US$1 600. These fees margins are not affordable for most small producers. It is not only the fees that affect small farmers but also many other pre-conditions for producing for medical and scientific purposes.

The paper also noted that a dual agrarian model is emerging in the cannabis sector in southern Africa where on one hand agribusinesses are the primary beneficiaries of the emerging legal market. On the other, small producers remain locked in the criminalised cannabis sector – with their production, trade and consumption still subject to arrest and incarceration in jails. While many in the corporate world hail the new developments and position themselves to benefit, small producers’ situation remains the same – with their production, trade and consumption still outlawed. For these reasons it is important to bring them into the conversation about reform of laws in the cannabis sector. Without radical reforms small producers will continue to be subjected to violence and forced eradication of their forms of livelihoods or ways of living.

The subject of cannabis in Africa is complex and cannabis is not a panacea for all problems in Africa. However, now more than ever is the opportunity to harness the socio-economic benefits of a drug that has a complicated history on the continent. And the better way to do that is to come with models that put small producers at the centre. In doing so, African societies may even find sustainable solutions to the drug problems in the communities when they engage the people on the ground as key stakeholders.

Check out for more on the Cannabis Africana project on the following links:

Twitter – @CannabisAfrican

Blog – Cannabis Africana – Drugs and Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

Facebook Page BristolUni_Cannabis Africana: Drugs and Development in Africa