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Turning green grass into gold

- Ufrieda Ho

Academia can help show how the cannabis industry can be a thriving sector in the country.

A re-start for the Wits Cannabis Research Initiative this year is an opportunity to sharpen this academic focus on a plant and industry that holds wide-ranging promise, but which needs an appropriate framework and clearer direction for its potential to be realised.

The research initiative got its start in January 2020 when a diverse collective of Wits researchers and academics came together to build stronger interdisciplinary research on cannabis. This emerged against the backdrop of a Constitutional Court ruling in 2018 decriminalising the use of cannabis for private use by adults. The ruling signalled a post-prohibition era in step with a global shift in attitudes to cannabis, but it also heralds unchartered waters for regulation and momentum has now stalled.

The ambitions of the group were also abruptly snuffed out with the Covid-19 lockdown starting in March 2020. Professor Imhotep Alagidede, in the Wits Business School, says the work of the group continued but in more separate streams. In 2023 though, he says, the Wits Cannabis Research Initiative is regrouping and reorganising in the hope of becoming a fully-fledged research unit. 

Red tape smothers growing green

Academic backing and collaborative endeavour, he says, are essential because the legislative barriers and licensing red tape to work with cannabis are significant. Wits University currently has a Schedule 7 licence that allows for growing the plant, to conduct research on it, and for the creation of products and compounds focused on drug development. As at June 2023, there were only around 93 licences granted by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA), which oversees licensing when cannabis compounds are used in health products. Alagidede says private individuals trying to secure licences face prohibitively expensive costs associated with meeting the legal and security requirements set down for licensing approval. Individuals also need to have established physical facilities even before licensing approval.

The research group’s members were part of the conceptualisation phase of South Africa’s National Cannabis Master Plan that was released in 2021. The plan’s key focus is on integrating small growers into formal cannabis value chains and addresses licensing, technical and financial support. According to the master plan, the formal cannabis industry could be worth R28 billion and has the potential to create up to 25 000 jobs.

“Beyond finding the best plants to farm in the different regions in South Africa we want to create new businesses. High unemployment rates mean we need to think about alternative ways of creating jobs and, by my own analysis, the sector has close to 250 different products associated with it – from applications in the industrial and construction industry, such as hempcrete, ropes and thread products, to fashion and medical applications,” Alagidede says.

The next steps for the industry, he says, should include pushing for policy outlines to be relevant and specific for South Africa. He says they cannot be imported “copy and pastes” from North American legislation and need to be focused on lowering barriers to entry and creating enabling spaces for entrepreneurs here.

Curative cannabis

For Tanya Augustine, cell biologist and Associate Professor in the School of Anatomical Sciences, the therapeutic benefits of Cannabis sativa remain under-researched. This despite the fact, she says, that humans have cultivated the plant for thousands of years especially for cordage and textile manufacture. She adds: "The psychotropic effects of Cannabis sativa [how it affects a person's mental state] associated with religious rituals and medical applications were recorded as early as 5 000 years ago in ancient Chinese texts.”

Augustine was a key lead of the research initiative in the years before the 2018 court ruling. She highlights the importance of understanding the compounds in cannabis as the plant is impacted by a range of conditions, including climate change, modes of harvesting extraction and drug delivery. For her, researching these complex variables is necessary to develop breakthrough drug therapies, and then to understand biological responses to such drugs. It’s also a boon for standardisation, which in turn is how small growers, who have always supplied the illicit market, can become more reliable suppliers, and carve out a bigger stake in any new cannabis value chain, she says.

“Legislation and policy frameworks can be tricky because there is no consistency. So that’s why we need to make it easier, especially administratively, to do more research. It’s also how science can better impact small scale cannabis growers, who should also be connected with those in the commercial space. We need to act fast enough so South Africa can have a foot in the door of global markets, but we can’t rush to commercialisation without the correct foundation in place either,” she says.

Decriminalisation disempowers

Prioritising inclusivity in this potential new economic sector is critical for Katrina Lehmann-Grube who is a researcher in the Wits Southern Centre for Inequality Studies. Before joining Wits, Lehmann-Grube worked at the Institute for Economic Justice where her research involved looking at inclusive development for the South African cannabis industry. She says the industry could look to models such as tiered licensing for small-scale growers and setting appropriate thresholds for maximum tetrahydrocannabinol levels for hemp classification that would protect small-scale growers.

“You want barriers to entry to be low enough that traditional growers can enter the markets and benefit. You don't want to exclude the most marginal – who have been criminalised by the system before – and only make it a source of accumulation for the elite, which is essentially what we're doing now,” says Lehmann-Grube. She points out that decriminalisation has resulted in “the bottom completely dropping out of the market.” Traditional growers’ prices for cannabis have fallen sharply, which has meant decriminalisation has had the opposite effect of economically empowering those on the margins. Also, as a newly legalised industry, the cannabis industry doesn’t have the benefit of advocacy and awareness that comes with long-established union, trade associations and civil society organisation support.

Lehmann-Grube adds that mindsets need to change too, because the route to decriminalisation in South Africa came through the narrow, and therefore limiting, channel of private rights of adults to use cannabis.

“The pathway to decriminalisation through the privacy route was premised on the freedom for private use but should have been focused on more holistic approaches to social and economic justice,” she says.

Engineering efficient crop cultivation

It means making more equitable room for multiple actors, those who have always been on the bottom rung but come from generations of growers, as well as the likes of emerging entrepreneurs who do not have access to capital. Two Wits Master’s students who fall into this category of entrepreneurs are Constant Beckerling, a chemical engineer, and Anlo van Wyk, a mechatronic engineer. Their multi award-winning designs of automated closed loop hydroponic cannabis cultivation systems with LED lighting led them to set up their company, AgriSmart Engineering, in March 2020.

Constant Breckerling from AgiSmart Engineering | Curiosity 16: #Drugs ©

By 2022 they had built and designed a facility and had 255 commercial prototypes of the LED technology on three different cannabis farms in the country. Their continued success in innovative solutions has seen them work with several commercial partners in southern Africa.

Beckerling says: “When you talk about cannabis in the pharmaceutical industry, it means that you need to have a very close reproducibility of the crop outcome. The only way to  ensure this consistency in crop outcome is to monitor and standardise your production inputs very closely.”

This is where their engineering advantage of technology and science helps fine-tune cultivators’ reproducibility of output needs by controlling every aspect of growing conditions, from light, to temperature, soil composition, and pest and disease control.

They have also seen the potential of being able to use their grow solutions from the vast range of cultivation options – from small scale open fields to hybrid models to sophisticated grow houses. The key for anyone growing commercially at whatever scale, techniques, illicitly or legally, they believe, is to be efficient and to engineer for appropriate problem solving.

Van Wyk says South Africa must maximise its regional advantages, which include high solar availability, arable land, and competitive labour rates, to develop new technologies and pioneer industry models that can set standards and be innovative in a nascent industry. He says: “We aim to develop technologies that are affordable and therefore accessible to more clients, and that will help South African products compete on a global stage that is growing all the time.”

Beckerling says that while their technology is focused on cannabis, it has at its heart engineering for efficient crop cultivation of virtually any kind. It’s about the future of growing crops by being energy efficient, minimising carbon footprints, striving for climate resilience which results in the quality on which people want to spend their rands.

“This has been our objective since we got started – it’s all or nothing,” says Beckerling. What’s coming for the cannabis industry could be huge and South Africa cannot be caught napping.

“It’s just a matter of time before South Africa wakes up and decides to take this really seriously,” he says.

  • Ufrieda Ho is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 16th issue, themed: #Drugs, where we highlight the diversity, scope, and multi-dimensional nature of drug-related research at Wits University.