UP-hosted webinar explores cannabis entrepreneurship in SA

Posted on April 10, 2021

The Draft National Cannabis Master Plan drawn up by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development is lacking in specificity on the way forward for the cannabis industry in South Africa.

This was the general consensus among panellists during a recent webinar on cannabis entrepreneurship in SA hosted by the Cannabis Organisation of the University of Pretoria (COUP). COUP’s aim is to drive cannabis research across multiple disciplines and create a hub of knowledge around the plant.

The webinar explored the massive entrepreneurial potential of the cannabis industry, what needs to be done to maximise the opportunities that exist, and addressed the challenges around monetising cannabis. Five panellists, all of whom are at the forefront of shaping this potentially lucrative and empowering industry, took part.

Moderator Suresh Patel, stakeholder manager of NPO Fields of Green for ALL, opened the webinar by stating that he hoped the Master Plan would fast-track trade laws to create a space for entrepreneurial activity, as there is much in the way of opportunities. It was pointed out that South Africa is currently in an uneasy limbo regarding cannabis: while the 2018 Constitutional Court judgement ruled that it is legal to grow and consume it in private spaces, it is still illegal to trade cannabis.

“The average person who’s interested in going into this industry assumes that it’s entirely about growing cannabis and selling what you grow,” said Sibusiso Xaba, co-founder and CEO of ACA Group, an investments and advisory business that assists cannabis entrepreneurs to create and execute financial, strategic and operational plans. Yet, he pointed out, there is a significant number of other applications – beyond that of recreational or wellness applications – and huge business potential within the sector.

“The global cannabis industry is worth more than $300bn (R4,3tn),” Xaba said. “But what needs to happen to support $300bn of product being moved and sold? A lot! There are applications within the technology and service spaces, in the education space, in formulation and industry materials – it’s extremely broad.” Hemp, for instance, has more than 25 000 industrial applications, Xaba added. As one of the most effective plants that can absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, more sustainable hemp products could replace hydrocarbon products.

Robyn Cameron, a content marketing and SEO specialist, agreed with Xaba about thinking beyond cultivation when it comes to the business of cannabis. “Everyone can benefit from the cannabis industry, as there are enough opportunities to apply the skills you already have,” said Cameron, whose digital services fall within the cannabis support industry.

Trenton Birch, co-founder of the Cheeba Cannabis Academy, spoke of the potential of cannabis for economic empowerment in SA and the importance of consolidating the industry here. “We can’t allow cannabis to be colonised by global players,” he said. “And while we do need capital and private equity, there needs to be partnerships. We need to manufacture here, process here; we can’t be exporting raw material and bringing [the products] back in.” He also believes that there needs to be more action from government. “We need things to happen now; SAHPRA [South African Health Products Regulatory Authority] needs to be scrutinised – they are slowing the industry down. We need this industry now – our economy needs it; our people need it. That is the mandate that we are driving through education.”

The seed market is another space for entrepreneurial opportunities, and there are more and more breeders popping up, according to Jordyn Murcia, founder and CEO of Green Smoke Room, a seed bank that specialises in cannabis genetics (strains). “There is a huge space for breeders – after all, you don’t want to be stuck with the same genetics,” he said. “With breeding, we’re finding new cannabinoids. The only way this industry is going to grow is with breeders and by everyone working together.” But, unlike in the US and Europe, where the top seed banks share their genetics, South African breeders are keeping their cards close to their chests, mainly because there are no structures (such as contracts) in place, Murcia explained.

For Sam Mzizi, editor of cannabis culture magazine Seven Leaf, research and development is a challenge because of the absence of factual information about cannabis. “Everything that we consume has been audited or doctored to push the incarceration of the plant,” he said. “So we are finding ourselves at a time when we are legally illegal.” He believes that the pioneers that are laying the groundwork for a cannabis industry need to come together to bring more considered information forward.

Mzizi also pointed out that the lack of cohesion between governmental departments is slowing things down, and that government is not taking into account the views of the cannabis community. “We are three years in, and only now we have a master plan,” Mzizi said. “The document that they have presented doesn’t speak to us; the community that has been existing for 10 or 20 years… where are their opinions?” We need platforms for communication on cannabis, its benefits and various uses, Mzizi added. “It’s about changing the culture and perception that cannabis is just for smoking and about being irresponsible and out of control.”

The Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development is currently seeking public input with regards to the Master Plan, though, as Murcia points out, only about 2 000 people (at the time of writing) had offered their thoughts. “If they get 100 000 comments about it, I think government will take it a little more seriously,” he said. Xaba added that the plan must align with the development of rural and township economies. “We can’t leave the most vulnerable South Africans behind when it comes to the need for this industry to be established.” 

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