Marakabei — Vast white greenhouses sit high up on the slopes of Lesotho’s Marakabei town, hidden from view. It’s not fruit or vegetables, however, growing under the 18 plastic covers, but thousands of cannabis plants.
The cannabis is grown legally by the Lesotho-based company Medigrow and is regulated by the government.
“We have three rows that contain 1,200 plants each. That’s 3,600 plants across the whole structure,” said Medigrow’s head of production Albert Theron, gazing proudly over the crop.
In 2017, the tiny landlocked kingdom of 2.1-million people decided to tap into the booming medical marijuana industry, becoming the first country in Africa to allow the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal purposes.
To meet legal standards, most traces of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) — the main psychoactive constituent responsible for marijuana’s intoxicating effects — are removed from the seeds. The remaining medical version is primarily made of the non-psychoactive substance, cannabidiol (CBD), and can only be 0.03% THC.
Investing in ‘green gold’
Medigrow has invested $19.3m in cannabis-growing facilities around the capital, Maseru. A heliport is also being built to ensure the cannabis — commonly referred to as “green gold” — is shipped safely and swiftly, said head of operations Relebohile Liphoto.
The investment is spurred by the industry’s positive outlook. The global market for medical cannabis is now estimated at $150bn and could reach $272bn in 2028, according to Barclays Bank.
“At the moment we have almost 2,000kg of biomass and we are going to produce more than 1,000 litres of CBD oil,” said Liphoto. “Depending on the market, we can sell cannabis oil at between $6,000 and $21,000 per litre.”
Mostly foreign companies
Nicknamed “Kingdom in the Sky”, Lesotho is the only country in the world whose entire territory sits higher than 1,400m above sea level.
Deputy health minister Manthabiseng Phohleli told AFP that the legalisation of cannabis presented “a huge opportunity for the country”, which enjoys 300 days of sunshine per year. “It attracts investors. So far we have about 10 businesses operating on the territory.”
Entirely surrounded by SA, Lesotho is also one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 159 out of 189 in the latest UN human development index. Unemployment is high, public services are scant, and almost a quarter of the population is infected with HIV.
The government charges €30,000 for a one-year renewable licence to grow cannabis. But the cost is too steep for most locals, and the market is dominated by foreign companies, mainly from Canada and the US.
Basothos miss out
Mothiba Thamae has been growing apples, peaches and raisins on 7.5ha of land for over two decades. He cannot afford the “green gold” licence.
“We hoped the government would give small Basotho farmers the opportunity to cultivate [cannabis] legally,” he said, referring to Lesotho’s main ethnic group. “Unfortunately they did not.”
Year-long sunshine and fertile soils make Lesotho ideal for cannabis plants. Known as “matekoane” in Sesotho, the country’s national language, it has been grown for centuries in rural areas.
“The first historical trace of matekoane dates back to the 16th century,” said Laurent Laniel, a researcher at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. “The Koena people are believed to have settled in Lesotho around 1550 by buying land from San groups in exchange for marijuana.”
‘Cannabis money is a bonus’
To this day, cannabis remains an important source of revenue for many small-scale farmers. Shasha owns a corn field in the centre of the country, on which he has also been growing cannabis illegally for about 20 years.
“The vegetables feed my family. Cannabis money is a bonus,” said Shasha. “It allows me to survive and pay for my children’s education.”
He sells his matekoane to a network of dealers such as Jama, who smuggles up to 80kg of cannabis across the border to SA each month. “That yields between €400 and €500,” he said.
The UN office on drugs and crime estimates that 70% of marijuana consumed in SA is grown in Lesotho, making cannabis the country’s third source of revenue.