By Nelson Banya
Zimbabwean farmers looking to cash in on the boom in medical marijuana face a litany of costs and regulatory barriers, but farmers like Munyaradzi Nyanungo are nonetheless hoping it will prove a bright spot after decades of economic decline.
With finance coming in from foreign companies like US-based King Kong Organics, Black farmers like Nyanungo, 35, who have struggled to prosper in Zimbabwe’s dysfunctional economy are looking to branch out into cannabis.
Zimbabwe became one of the first African countries to legalise the production of medicinal cannabis in 2018, hoping for a fresh income stream of badly needed export dollars, and has issued 57 licenses.
As Africa’s biggest tobacco producer, Zimbabwean officials also recognise the need to diversify away from tobacco an addictive stimulant narcotic that, unlike cannabis, is proven to be ruinous to the health of smokers and those around them.
But challenges remain not least the huge cost of getting set up amid tight regulations, such as the requirement to use a greenhouse to meet the criteria for ‘organically grown’ cannabis necessary to be able to sell it to the medical market.
“Greenhouse is a very costly setup, take for instance this entire greenhouse, you need something around US$ 500,000 dollars just to set up the structure, the plastics, the drip system is an additional cost, the seeds and the other practices that we carry out in here,” Nyanungo said.
The global cannabis industry could be worth US$272 billion by 2028, according to Barclays analysts, and Zimbabwe’s Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube has said Zimbabwe is targeting at least US$1 billion of that more than it currently makes from tobacco.
That, he said, brings the cost of a single hectare of cannabis up to US$2.5 million. He and other producers are currently lobbying the government to relax the rules and lower the risks.
“We hoping to get the authorities to allow us to grow outside so that we can increase our hectarage as much as maybe 100 hectares or so because under greenhouse it will be very restrictive,” Nyanungo said.
“If anyone is going to grow medical-grade cannabis, it’s going to be at their risk because there are too many variables,” said Zorodzai Maroveke, CEO and founder OF Zimbabwe Industrial Hemp Trust, during a national trade fair in Bulawayo. “So much can go wrong,” she added.
Still, the rewards could also be substantial. Operating since 2003, Nyanungo’s Forest Farm has been growing traditional crops of tobacco and maize, and raising cattle, but acquired the cannabis license in 2020. Of his 80 farmhands, twenty are now used for the cannabis plants. He expects to earn over $2.5 million in profit from their first harvest in August.