In this Tuesday, July 2, 2019 photo, Darren Johnson, a hemp processor, holds raw hemp that will be used to make CBD oil at his processing facility, Wasatch Extraction, in Salt Lake City. Johnson is one of 81 applicants vying for a medical marijuana growers license in Utah. (AP Photo/Morgan Smith)
HARARE -  Zimbabwe is seeking to extend its earnings from the agricultural sector through expansion from tobacco and cotton to hemp, an industrial cannabis strain that is industrially useful, cabinet ministers agreed this week, as the southern African country scrambles to shore up productivity across farming value chains.

This is, however, not the first time that Zimbabwe has made a pronouncement on cannabis after it allowed investors to apply for licences to grow cannabis for medicinal purposes about two years ago.  

The Zimbabwean government has been keen to follow in the footsteps of South Africa, which has legalised cannabis. Government officials say that Zimbabwe could realise much foreign currency earnings from industrial hemp and medicinal cannabis.

This comes as experts at consultancy firm, Prohibition Partners have already said, “Africa’s legal cannabis industry could generate more than $US 7.1 billion annually by 2023 if a number of the continent’s major markets open up and mirror the trend of legalisation” seen in the US, Canada and Europe.

More importantly, the hemp strain that Zimbabwe has now embraced is described as easy to regulate and promote as it is not toxic compared to other strains of marijuana.

“With hemp, it’s not toxic as cannabis. The minister of justice has been directed to say ‘go and make amendments’ to the criminal code in our system so that people who will grow hemp don’t have to be criminalized,” July Moyo, a Zimbabwean cabinet minister standing in for Industry Minister Mangaliso Ndlovu said after a cabinet meeting this week.

It is the government’s hope that “industrial hemp will widen the country’s industrial and export base” especially in light of dwindling tobacco prices and earnings this year. Drought conditions have ravaged Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector and the tobacco sub sector has been the hardest hit.

According to Prohibition Partners, estimates show that more than 38000 tonnes of illegal cannabis is produced across Africa each year.

Development of strains such as hemp as well as moves to legalise production in “demonstrates the clear potential for an economic boom for African countries that actively seek to legalise and regulate their cannabis markets”.

Unlike tobacco, which is facing an international ban, hemp and medicinal cannabis are seeing increased global acceptance owing to their usefulness in medicine and industrial productivity for textiles, paper and other use cases.

Ivory Medical has already been granted the greenlight to grow medicinal cannabis at a prison facility in Zimbabwe under a partnership involving the Ministry of Health and funded by NSK Holdings, other international investors, and Portuguese technical farming support firm, Symtomax.

Lesotho became the first African country to legalize marijuana farming in 2017. Its decision to view marijuana as a source of national revenue rather than petty crime marks a shift in a region where marijuana is widely used and regularly illegally exported across borders.