Cape Town - Not to be confused with marijuana, or dagga, hemp is a non-pyschoactive related crop which has many uses – fabric, oil, cosmetics, and building materials, all extremely eco-friendly.
Tony Budden, co-owner of Hemporium, explains: “The industrial varieties of cannabis, referred to as hemp, are low in THC, the psychoactive compound found in recreational/medicinal cannabis. Hemp is prized for its long stalk with few branches and strong fibre, while marijuana/dagga is prized for its flowers and bushy shape. Industrial cannabis is planted at around 200 plants/m2 while the smokeable varieties at around 1 plant/m2. Hemp is agriculture, while marijuana/dagga is generally horticulture.”
Hemp needs virtually no fertiliser and no pesticides. It grows fast, stifles weeds and is drought resistant. It’s perfect for community or commercial farming because of the low input costs. Ten hectares of hemp provide more useful fibre than 40ha of forest and do so in five months, instead of 10 to 20 years.
Because of all its uses, hemp holds huge potential as a job creator. So why are we not planting more of this miracle crop?
The Department of Agriculture recognises hemp as an agricultural crop, but, legally, there is still no distinction between dagga and industrial hemp. South Africa could have been a world leader in the hemp industry, but has fallen behind countries like Australia, China, the UK, the US and Canada, says Budden.
“We still have huge potential to excel, as we have the right climate, accessible land and a rural population who need jobs. It is way past the time for the law to recognise the potential of industrial hemp and take advantage of all the eco-friendly jobs, houses, food and medicine it can provide.”
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Hemporium and it is also 20 years since South Africa started doing research on hemp, which is way too long, in Budden’s opinion.
“Canada started research at the same time as us and is now growing more than 50 000has of hemp commercially. If South Africa was growing 50 000ha of hemp, we would be providing at least 100 000 jobs and be building 50 000 RDP houses from Hempcrete a year,” he says. “Aust-ralia began research after us and their industry is currently growing rapidly, while we have stagnated in research.”
Hempcrete is just one of the products made with hemp. Hemporium imports hemp hurd (chipped hemp stalks) and then blends it with a local lime-based binder to make Hempcrete, a natural, breathable, eco-friendly cement. The hemp stalk is porous and the lime particles are absorbed into these pores, calcifying inside the hurd. It is here that the carbon in the hemp bonds with the calcium in the lime to form calcium carbonate, petrifying over time.
The lime is mixed with water and, a small amount of proprietary binder, then mixed with the hemp hurd into a dry-ish aggregate that is cast between shutter boards to make the walls. It is generally cast in situ around a light wooden frame, creating a solid wall with no bricks. It is then plastered over with a lime render on the outside and a hemp plaster layer on the inside.
Hempcrete buildings are prized for their low embodied energy, insulation, moisture regulation and low energy requirements for heating and cooling. And most walls are grown in four months, which is hard to beat.
Hemporium has been involved in the building of five Hempcrete structures, including the original “House that Hemp Built” in Noordhoek, now five years old. Living in a hemp house for five years has been great, says Budden: “It is warm in winter and cool in summer and my electricity costs are a fraction of similarly sized conventional buildings. When I tell people that most of my walls were grown in four months they are generally amazed.
“Some see it as ‘alternative’ when I tell them that: ‘This morning I woke up under a hemp duvet, stepped onto my hemp carpet, opened my hemp curtains, in my house made of hemp, showered with hemp soap and shampoo, opened my cupboards made from hemp chipboard, got dressed in hemp clothes, made myself a smoothie with hemp seeds, and a salad for lunch using hemp seed oil salad dressing, drove to work at my hemp business where we employ people to make hemp products and support a farmer who is doing our research.
“Now imagine if all that was available to everyone, where one plant that is grown organically with ease in four months could provide for so many of our needs. I think that South Africa would be a better, greener, more sustainable place.”
There is a second hemp house, in the Bo-Kaap, built by Oliver Wolf, the eco-architect.
“We have built a generator shed and a packhouse on a farm in Constantia and also supplied the hemp and expertise for the Yiza Ekhaya Community Project in Khayelitsha, which was built mostly by volunteers and crowd funding,” says Budden. The head office of Weleda Pharmacies in Joburg was built using some Hempcrete blocks in 2002.
“We could have built many more houses but are currently limited by having to import the hemp hurd used for making Hempcrete from Europe. This is expensive and as hemp building is taking off internationally, supply can be limited.”
Hemp is legal to grow, process and market in almost 40 countries including China, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Uruguay and The Netherlands. Hemp products are legal in most regions.
“We were part of the three-year commercial incubation trial and planted 2ha of hemp for three seasons, but this was not enough to reach economies of scale or to build a local industry on. The reports have been submitted but we have not yet had an indication as to when commercial licenses will be available,” says Budden.
The law banning “dagga (cannabis), the whole plant, or any portion of the plant” remains the biggest challenge, says Budden. “We need to recognise this plant has many benefits and we would be foolish not to see how South Africa can take advantage of them.”
Because it is a new way of building, entering a market that is controlled and monopolised by brick and mortar buildings can be difficult. It also requires training and time but, in general, hemp is very easy to build with, says Budden.
Hemporium offers the widest selection of hemp products in Africa, including locally manufactured hemp clothing, accessories, body-care and nutrition products. A concept store will be launched in Westlake Business Park next month, which will have Hempcrete plastered walls and where people can see all the products, buy hemp fabrics and also have access to hemp products made locally.
* Hemporium 021 762 4380, hemporium.co.za for hemp fabric and products.
Bianca Coleman, Independent HOME