Article – Cannabis Culture: Colonizer Cannabis: Who Owns the African Market?

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CANNABIS CULTURE – Africa´s cannabis industry is riding a thrilling wave: launching a SPAC; dispatching the world´s largest-ever cannabis shipment; experimenting with medical cannabis tissue – but is Africa´s cannabis sector only “African” in name? 

Among other pointers, random scrutiny of corporate ownerships structures of Africa´s cannabis corporations gives a hint that Western cannabis colonialism is shaping up across Africa, and the chief colonial raider appears to be Canada.

Convoluted ownerships

Screaming headlines reveal that Africa has embarked on her first-ever cannabis SPAC stock listing in 2022. But a closer look at Cilo Cybin, the corporation driving that corporate listing reveals interesting dynamics. Cilo Cybin can be said to be a South African company, for now. “We are currently a South African cannabis company in the process of becoming a multinational. We have other entities registered in Panama and the Netherlands. Our roots started in South Africa, from there we branched out,” Gabriel Theron its chief executive told Cannabis Culture in November.

“It´s even doubtable that this Africa SPACs cannabis pioneer will remain wholly South Africa shortly,” argues Carter Mavhiza, an independent public accountant in Johannesburg with a special interest in cannabis auctions.

“South Africa like the rest of Africa will simply remain a cannabis cultivation ground. Ownership, profits will likely be centered offshore outside the continent. This reminds me of oil colonialism in Africa, which is just African oil in name but cornered by European drillers your BPs, Chevrons, Total, and Exxon Mobil…”

I haven´t even touched on the equity leadership of Africa´s cannabis corporations which consist mostly of white male executives whilst their cannabis cultivation operations are largely centered in Black Africa. A casual look at Cilo Cybn advisory board and executive team show its listed leaders as overwhelmingly white male executives.

The same scenario applies to Highlands which bills itself as the launcher of Africa´s first cannabis contract cultivation scheme. Working from Lesotho, Africa´s top medical cannabis producer, Highlands’s it´s an uphill task to map out the ownership structure of Highlands which keeps going mergers, de-mergers, and partnerships.

When asked by Cannabis Culture in January 2021, Highlands which formerly called itself Canopy Africa (from parent company Canopy Growth of Canada), billed itself as an “independent entity”.

Mark Corbett, the managing director of Highlands Investments fumbled to explain the name-changing sprees to Cannabis Culture.

“Highlands Investments was formerly Canopy Growth Africa, however, it is no longer part of The Canopy Group. In 2017, Canopy Growth exited its operations in South Africa and Lesotho as part of a strategic review of its businesses. This resulted in a transfer of ownership of all of its African operations to Highlands Investments in April 2020,” Corbett told Cannabis Culture at the time.

But a firm picture has emerged – Highlands boasts of being a star cannabis player in Lesotho but it´s arguably a Canadian company not African, despite its former name Canopy Africa.

“This is particularly interesting,” says Mavhiza the cannabis analyst, “the creeping Canadian colonialism into Africa´s cannabis sector couched in complicated name changes, mergers, and corporate partnerships.”

Did Africa stage the world´s biggest cannabis export?

In August, Africa basked in glory after it was announced the world´s largest-ever shipment of cannabis, 8.5tons was sent from Africa to Macedonia, Europe, by non-other than Highlands. Again, as mentioned earlier, a closer look at the exporter, Highlands reveals her arguably “not-so Africa” ownership roots.

“Africa, sleeping at the wheel, risks becoming just a staging ground for Canadian, American, European cannabis firms,” says Dennis Juru, president of The South Africa International Cross-border Traders Association, a lobby for EU-like borderless trade in the southern Africa region.

This naturally leads us to MG Health, another “African” cannabis starlet which boasts of being the first African cannabis company to be awarded the EU´s license to bring cannabis flower, oil, extracts for medicinal purposes under the EU´s Good Manufacturing Practice Standards. MG Health which is farming 5000 square meters in Lesotho and plans to ramp up its workforce to 3000 in the future, is, judging by its directorship library, essentially a South African company cornering the cannabis cultivation market in Lesotho.

“This is another dimension of cannabis equity, colonialism debate in Africa: inter- Africa cannabis colonialism, if one may say. In this case, it´s white South Africa corporate cannabis players cornering the market in smaller African states like Lesotho which geographically is a country living inside South Africa,” says Shamiso Mupara, a Zimbabwe ecologist-environmentalist and delegate to the COP26 conference in Scotland 2021.

Governments enable cannabis colonialism

An emerging thread in the debate about Africa´s creeping cannabis colonialism is that it is African governments hastily doling out cannabis licenses that are enabling this phenomenon.

“There has been a rush, some sort of wild rush to issue cannabis legalization laws and licenses in African countries that frankly speaking, are not logistically ready to cultivate, process, export cannabis,” argues Mavhiza the analyst.

He cites the Democratic Republic of Congo where legalization and lack of capacity mean the state is mostly inviting foreign cannabis companies to grab available licenses. In Zimbabwe, the 57 cannabis licenses issued in late 2021 went mainly to firms from Germany, Canada, Switzerland, and “some local players.” Little wonder in South Africa, Black farmers unions are furious, and took to the street in 2020, claiming that regulatory authorities had corruptly dished out the majority cannabis licenses to white players.

“The history of cannabis in Africa is the history of painful agriculture colonialism,” says Mupara, the ecologist.

“For example, in South Africa, the racist Apartheid Act of 1965 criminalized Black South Africans from possessing, cultivating, or transacting in cannabis. Whether in the US or Africa, anti-cannabis laws have historically been weaponized on Black bodies yet Black is the community harshly affected by the so-called War on Drugs.”

Zimbabwe: Model of debunking cannabis colonialism

One outlier African country that can serve as a model for debunking the myth of cannabis colonialism is Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has a history of what it claims is agriculture equity when, from 2000, its government seized land from white settler descendants and resettled Black Zimbabweans to rectify “colonial injustices”. Of course the process was fraught with massive fraud, looting and violence.

However, Zimbabwe, appears to be following the footsteps of her African peers, doling out the most lucrative cannabis licenses to Western corporations.

“After tobacco, coffee, cannabis is the next frontier of Western agricultural domination in Africa. I shudder to think what happens when the Chinese land on the scene. The cakes is being snapped up fast,” sums Mavhiza.


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