Green gold from Malawi – Capital Radio Malawi
13 June, 2024

Photo Credit: Luisa Gonzalez

In 1980, legendary reggae musician Bob Marley left an indelible impression on the newly independent nation of Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia. He performed with his Wailers Band at the official ceremony to celebrate the country’s independence from British rule. Little did Marley know that his visit to Africa would go down in history not only because of his iconic music, but also because of an unexpected discovery he made: Malawi Gold, a cannabis strain known locally as “Chamba”, which would go on to become famous.

When Marley immersed himself in the vibrant atmosphere of Zimbabwe and tried Malawi Gold, he praised the “herb” for making him invincible. This laid the foundation for a fascinating symbiosis of culture, economy and agriculture in Malawi.

Although it is not legal, Malawi’s marijuana is one of the best and finest marijuana strains in the world. The World Bank classifies it as one of the most psychoactive pure African sativa strains. In 2011, the World Bank stated that the trade in marijuana accounts for around 0.2 percent of Malawi’s annual GDP. The plant is already said to be one of the country’s most important export goods, with almost ten tons being confiscated domestically every year. Nevertheless, it is a perfect cash cow that can easily generate foreign currency. 

In 2022, scientist Brian Phiri Kampanje calculated that Malawi could earn half a billion US dollars a year from the cannabis industry if the authorities were to regulate cultivation. Despite the ban on hemp in Malawi, the black market is growing – much to the detriment of the Malawians, who could benefit from the proceeds. 

However, although the UN has removed marijuana for medicinal purposes from the list of the riskiest drugs like heroin, and some tourists only visit the country for the world-famous strain, the Malawian government is sceptical about legalization. NGOs and religious associations also oppose the legalization of the popular plant. The group Drug Fight Malawi, for example, points to psychoses that can be triggered by abusive consumption. The organization is of the opinion that legalization would cause more harm and would also meet with great resistance from the locals.

Scientist Kampanje, on the other hand, is convinced that the advantages of hemp use outweigh the disadvantages. Malawians are aware that tourists come to consume cannabis, and the tourism industry has benefited from the informal trade. “Millions of people around the world are interested in tasting Malawian gold,” says Kampanje. The government should negotiate with countries that have legalized kosnum, such as the US and Canada, on a mode of export.

More than 40 years after Bob Marley praised Malawi gold, the country is at a crossroads in its economic history. Although Malawi is currently unable to take full advantage of its unique hemp, it has turned to industrial and medicinal cannabis to compete in a rapidly growing and competitive market.

The country had traditionally relied on tobacco exports, but has been struggling with a decline in demand for some time. Increased health awareness and reports of child labor on tobacco plantations had caused sales to plummet.

In 2020, parliament passed a law to regulate cannabis, decriminalizing cannabis for industrial and medical use. With this step, Malawi drew level with neighboring countries such as Zimbabwe, Zambia, Lesotho and South Africa. The law distinguishes between industrial hemp, medicinal cannabis and marijuana for recreational use, which is still prohibited.  A minimum content of 0.3 percent of the psychoactive substance tetrahydrocannabinol was set as the limit between the categories.

During the 2023 budget debate in parliament, Finance Minister Simplex Chithyola said that Malawi could generate around 700 million US dollars annually from cannabis biomass. The government now wants to revise the Cannabis Act. 

Agricultural expert Tamani Nkhono Mvula, however, doubts that Malawi can develop a marijuana economy that can hold its own on the international market in the same way as tobacco grown in the country. Many believed that hemp could replace tobacco as Malawi’s main source of income. “But over the years, the hype has died down,” says Mvula. Most farmers who wanted to get into cannabis cultivation have returned to tobacco or other crops because the promise was not fulfilled. Malawi lacks the human resources and infrastructure to grow cannabis on a large scale, Mvula believes.

Betchani Tchereni, the president of the business association, is in favor of a reduction in license fees by the Cannabis Regulatory Authority (CRA), which was founded in 2020. This would motivate more farmers to enter the trade. The fees are a “major obstacle” to entry, says economist Tchereni. Currently, a permit to produce industrial hemp costs 2,000 US dollars and 10,000 US dollars for medicinal cannabis. The CRA has held out the prospect of a reduction, at least for industrial hemp.

It is estimated that the cannabis business in Malawi will reach a volume of around 57.15 million US dollars in 2023 and grow steadily thereafter. There are already large potential sales markets in the USA and some EU countries, and legalization is also being discussed in Germany and Spain. 

Malawi’s entry into the cannabis market opens up a huge economic opportunity for the country. It is worth heeding the timeless words of Bob Marley: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, no one but ourselves can free our minds.” This line from the famous Redemption Song is a reminder that true freedom comes from an attitude that prioritizes creativity, inclusion and the empowerment of people as a whole alongside economic goals.

Malawi’s entry into the cannabis sector is an opportunity to dispel stereotypes, promote sustainable development and, in the spirit of Marley, liberate people’s minds to prepare them for a better and more prosperous future.

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