Zimbabwe’s hemp fortunes hinge on diversification into fiber, foods

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As Zimbabwe continues to shape rules and laws for the hemp industry, the country needs to simultaneously build out infrastructure and expand research while spreading risk by moving beyond CBD into the production of food and fiber products.

Amended legislation in Zimbabwe earlier this year removed industrial hemp from the country’s list of dangerous drugs and set the defining line between marijuana and hemp at 1.0%. That THC limit puts Zimbabwe in the vanguard of nations around the world that have broken with the long-standing convention observed by most countries, which sets the THC limit for hemp at 0.3%.

Zimbabwe opened up the domestic market for CBD as a traditional herbal medicine last year, expanding upon previous laws which had allowed production only for export.

What 1% THC means

An increased THC level gives industrial hemp farmers greater production efficiency for CBD because CBD rises in hemp plants in proportion to THC. The high limit will also mean Zimbabwe farmers won’t have to worry about their crops going over the THC threshold as most major hemp varieties which bear some kind of registration have been bred for 0.2% or 0.3% THC.

The 1.0% THC limit broadens options in genetics, and allows the production of a wider range of products, said Kumbirai Mateva, a plant breeder who sits on Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Research Board (TRB), which has responsibility for hemp research.

“This is particularly important because studies have shown that certain genetics that combine cannabinol (CBD) and THC ratios produce interesting fiber qualities and also an entourage effect with synergistic therapeutic benefits from the CBD flowers,” Mateva told the ZimEye website.

Clever Isaya, CEO of the country’s Agricultural Marketing Authority (AMA), said there is a need to intensify the breeding of local hemp seed varieties to boost production. The TRB has been testing and developing hemp genetics for adaptation to Zimbabwe’s climatic conditions over the last few years.

Risk in CBD

Zimbabwe’s hemp industry is still small. The country roughly doubled production between 2021 and 2022, turning out 40 tons last year from 24 hectares planted – primarily for hemp flowers – according to the AMA. An estimated 50 hectares is expected to be put in this year, but if Zimbabwean farmers stick primarily to growing flowers for CBD, they could find their fortunes diminished.

Flowers brought Zimbabwe’s growers roughly $10 per kilogram from Switzerland last year, according to the AMA. But the global CBD market remains in a price squeeze following a massive oversupply of flowers that accumulated over the past three years, causing prices to plunge by more than 90% since 2019 – when Zimbabwe first got its hemp initiative going at a prison in Harare. In the U.S., the average price for CBD biomass was roughly $7.50 per kilogram ($3.83/lb.) in February – a new all-time low – analyst HempBenchmarks reported.

Signs of change

Zimbabwean hemp stakeholders could escape significant damage caused by the CBD crash by adding or transitioning to industrial hemp for fiber and food outputs. And signals indicate that could be happening. The government last year listed hempcrete as a promising option in the construction industry after it secured a $63 million line of credit from an African fund to develop eco-friendly buildings. Under that initiative, the National Housing and Social Amenities Ministry has a goal to build 220,000 housing units by 2025. The government has also said it is allocating separate funds to develop a factory to turn out green building materials.

Also, hemp has the potential to become a significant food crop in Zimbabwe. While the government has said little about hempseed-based foods, the market for such products is well-established and growing, and the country’s hemp stakeholders could potentially tap into this market both domestically and through exports.

The government is providing further support to the hemp industries through Zimbabwe Industrial Hemp Trust (ZIHT), a development initiative established to assist farmers in starting up hemp operations, and to explore export potential. Also, industrial hemp has been identified as a crop of interest in the government’s Vision 2030 program, which aims to advance agricultural profitability and rural development.

In addition to research, Zimbabwe needs local hemp testing centers and facilities for processing hemp grain and fiber products, Mateva said.

Tobacco in decline

Zimbabwean authorities see industrial hemp as a replacement for the country’s falling prospects in tobacco, which makes up roughly 20% of Zimbabwe’s exports. Contraction in the tobacco industry has contributed to stagnation which has beset the country’s economy for nearly two decades despite the African nation’s vast wealth of natural resources.

While only two companies, African Medical Cannabis Biotech and Swiss Bioceuticals, produce CBD in Zimbabwe, 60 entities now hold licenses from the AMA – 27 growers, 18 retail sellers, and 15 which are conducting research.” Investors from Germany, Switzerland and Canada are among those who have received cultivation and processing licenses under Zimbabwe’s cannabis program.

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