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A tiny African kingdom wants to export its cannabis to the world

The cannabis industry in Lesotho is taking off after becoming the first African country to legalise the drug for medicinal use.
Kekeletso Lekaota stands among the cannabis plants growing in a greenhouse at MG Health in Lesotho. Image: Waldo Swiegers, Bloomberg

Kekeletso Lekaota spends her work days nurturing rows of cannabis plants for harvest. Pruning a few yellowed leaves from stems with thick, flowering heads, she says the job requires a soft touch and delicate hands.

It’s a crop Lekaota had no experience with 18 months ago, when she saw an advertisement for a grower in her local newspaper. Now, the 27-year-old trains others how to cultivate the plants for MG Health, a supplier of pharmaceutical-grade cannabis products, at a farm and oil extraction facility in Lesotho, the tiny, mountainous kingdom bordered on all sides by South Africa.

“I didn’t know what cannabis was — it was only when I was applying for this job that I realised it’s dagga,” Lekaota said, using a word for weed derived from the local Khoisan languages, as she readied the greenhouses for their required 12 hours of darkness.

Marijuana has been widely cultivated across Lesotho, one of Africa’s poorest countries, since time immemorial—long used as medicine by the native Basotho people. It’s easier to grow and more lucrative than other crops such as maize and sugar cane, and the nation’s abundant water and fertile soil provide ideal conditions. Many families rely on the extra income from selling illicitly to recreational drug users, to cover basic costs such as sending their children to school.

The Lesotho government is now trying to spur development of legal plantations supplying the burgeoning global medical cannabis industry to broaden its tax base — currently dominated by exports of diamonds, water and wool — and create jobs. About two-thirds of the country’s 2.2 million people live in rural villages, and many survive off subsistence farming. Cannabis is a critical piece of the government’s agricultural strategy, which it hopes will help fund basic infrastructure such as roads, electricity and water pipes.

In 2018, Lesotho became the first African nation to issue licenses for the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes. Foreign investors including Canadian companies Supreme Cannabis, Canopy Growth and Aphria have since poured tens of millions of dollars into a handful of facilities, drawn by the low cost of production.

MG Health, Lesotho’s biggest commercial producer, received C$10 million ($7.6 million) from Supreme Cannabis last year in exchange for 10% of the business then known as Medigrow Lesotho (Supreme has said it eventually wants to export medical cannabis oils from Lesotho to Canada). MG Health plans to employ as many as 3 000 workers locally — up from about 350 currently — once it reaches full production in a few years, says chief executive officer Andre Bothma.

The company harvests a strain of marijuana with low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the compound that gets you high — to comply with regulations. It exports nonpsychoactive cannabidiol (CBD) oil extracts and other medical cannabis products primarily to South Africa, and is working on entering markets in Europe and the Middle East, as well as Australia. 

“We have first-mover advantage in Africa and we think the market is huge,” Bothma says.

CBD is a fast-growing piece of the $340 billion global cannabis market. In the US alone, CBD sales are expected to quintuple to about $20 billion by 2024 from six years earlier, according to BDS Analytics.

As cannabis rules loosen around the globe, companies are turning to low-cost regions for supply. MG Health says that even in its start-up phase, it’s producing in Lesotho for about 93 cents a gram, less than the $1 or more per gram that it cites as the norm elsewhere. But Lesotho will face competition for investment from other regions known to be cheap, including Colombia and Jamaica, as well as other African nations that may follow in its footsteps and legalise production.

To get large plants with thick flowering heads, growers need controlled temperatures of between 20 and 28 degrees Celsius (68 to 82.4 degrees Fahrenheit), plenty of air circulation to prevent mildew growing and, when in bloom, a strict regime of 12 hours of light and an equal measure of dark, according to MG Health.

As a medical product, it’s imperative that the CBD oil produced is standardised and uncontaminated, and quality control testing for MG Health is conducted by the independent LuCan Laboratories. Workers have to shower at work and wear layers of protective clothing, which are then washed and pressed at the end of each day. 

The fledgling legal industry in Lesotho has given big ideas to illegal growers, who produce strains known for their strong psychoactive effects and sell to South Africans. They can avoid arrest by producing in remote locations and bribing authorities.

Kotsoana Clementi, a 43-year-old who grows pot illicitly in his village about a 1.5-hour drive from the capital of Maseru, says he would like to partner with one of the Canadian cannabis companies on a legal business. While Clementi stands out among other villagers with his blue collared shirt, Guess jeans and polished black shoes, the operation in his small stone house lacking electricity is rudimentary.

After harvesting his weed between March and May, Clementi fills hundreds of packets and seals them with the flame from a paraffin lamp and the rounded end of a spoon. He charges R15 apiece and can sell 380 packets a day — an amount worth almost $400 (he says he keeps 60% of the sales and the rest goes to drug mules and bribes for border police).

“The most important thing would be to secure an investor — then the whole village would have work,” Clementi says. “I’d still want to be in charge of the business, but the villagers could have a 2-3% stake.”

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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The place is going to pot !!

It is very sad that a ‘kingdom’ has nothing else to export except dagga. Pathetic actually.

It actually exports also water from the LHWP, the highlands water scheme to Gauteng. About 20-40% actually of all GP water. And produces most of its own electricity from the Muela hydro plant.
Their electricity is cheaper and more reliable.
And it has also some manufacturing like clothing, which they about all export, eg Jonsson workwear. CBI ( electrical stuff like DB Boards, switches, cables) also relocated from the FS to LS some 10 years back.
People in LS are not so misled by too influential and militant trade unions, and pampered by an abundance of social security grants like in SA, and are still willing to work 40hrs a week in factories for relatively not very high wages.
I am surely not praise singing the Mountain Kingdom, it is poorly managed, has plenty of political instability, and corruption, and often full of litter.

Thanks Marcan.

It appears as if you are questioning whether Lesotho is a kingdom (even though you should have used double quotations rather than single quotations, maar ons verstaan).
Lesotho is officially called the Kingdom of Lesotho (multiple references) so there is no ground for you questioning their status.
Your opinion is therefore appears to be based on bigotry (bias/prejudice/discrimination).

By calling Lesotho’s attempts to export any service/product in order to improve their economy “pathetic” tells us more about your character and acceptance of fellow human beings than about Lesotho as a country.

Time to shift the paradigm.

Seems you need to relax with some of that green stuff?

Lesotho is a small country population-wise and seemingly small on the conventional maps.
However, considering the formidable series of mountain ranges rising from around 1200m in the West to well over 3000m in the East, the surface area is quantum more than box thinkers might calculate- actually infinitely larger.
Lesotho has some of the best-run diamond mines in the World and has attained international acclaim for its quality with the famous “Lesotho reds” originating there.

These mines are mainly run via the London Stock Exchange and are worth billions and billions of pounds.
In mining in general- and platinum and gold in particular, the contribution of Basotho people is unmatched from any other group in SA. They arguably possess the greatest pool of mining skill-sets in the World.

The SA mining industry, particularly deep level mines- have a time tested reliance and dependence on these enterprising, hard-working and intelligent people. A debt of gratitude even?
Education in Lesotho was never hindered by apartheid-style wheelbarrow and spade type approaches and is based on the UK ‘O’ and ‘A’ level public systems- vastly superior to SA in many ways.
The manufacturing sector around Butha Buthe, Lerebe and Maputsoe and Maseru has become advanced and sophisticated, with so many of the high quality products sold in South Africa as “Made in China” actually originating there!
Maputsoe is a great example of a dynamic and growing economic hub, on the opposite side of the border from Ficksburg- it has dwarfed the SA economic flows in the region and much of Ficksburg depends on these (mostly Chinese financed) manufacturing initiatives to stay in business. Thanks Maputsoe!
A similar type of rapid development is happening in and around Butha Buthe. A corridor down the Caledon basin to Maseru is way more productive than anything the SA side has to show within a 300km radius. In fact SA in the E OFS region is showing it’s dark ages inability to adapt and innovate as it remains heavily reliant on commercial agriculture and remains one of the worst areas for levels of unemployment, grant and social support dependence.
South Africans simply show their own arrogance and ignorance by bad mouthing Lesotho and its enterprising people and their vast value add and future potential. These blinkers serve mainly to limit their own opportunities and potential benefits of open cooperation.
Frankly this reflects the poor spiralling debt narrative of SA, it’s floundering SOE’s, stagnant economic conditions and dearth of innovative and imaginative actions to empower their own poorer and poorer communities.
Much better to drop the numerous border posts surrounding Lesotho, incorporate a free trade policy (simply man a customs booth at the Lesotho International Airport) and follow their example innovating solutions for development imperatives.

This takes a sophisticated level of integration, cooperation and international depth of relationship than SA has been showing in recent years.

A proud heritage and high-achieving narrative, despite severe challenges and threats (often from SA herself) exists as a super example for individuals to inspire and uplift themselves going forward without dependence on a crippled political infrastructure.. this cannabis endeavour being one such further example.

End of comments.

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