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Business Botswana seeks probe into cannabis as a cash crop

MBONGENI MGUNI
Cashing in: Lesotho is pioneering Africa's push to legally farm cannabis
The country’s largest business lobby, Business Botswana, has proposed that government investigate the introduction of the cannabis family of crops, as a cash boost and diversification strategy for agriculture, Mmegi has learnt.

Cannabis, in its various forms, is a prohibited substance in Botswana, although more voices have urged government to consider legalising the farming of hemp for medicinal and industrial use.

While government spends billions on agriculture, for inputs, training and drought relief, the sector has struggled to contribute meaningfully to the economy over the decades, leaving the country largely dependent on imports for most of its requirements. 

Business Botswana, which is government’s official partner in economic policy, recently drafted a 50-page “Recovery Plan for the Private Sector,” giving its recommendations on how the country could shake off the effects of COVID-19 and restructure the economy going forward.

The document, prepared in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme, lists numerous proposals for economic diversification, business facilitation and revenue generation going forward.  Cannabis cropping is amongst these. 

“(Government should) undertake the requisite research to inform any necessary reviews of legislation to facilitate the diversification of agriculture into high value cash crops such as cannabis,” the document proposes. 

Under the heading “Regulatory Reforms” Business Botswana proposes that an investigation be conducted into the “desirability of legislation to facilitate the diversification of agriculture into high value cash crops such as those in the cannabis family”. 

Several African countries have joined the race to cash in on the cannabis family of plants, most notably Lesotho, which is fast-tracking the licencing of various ventures as a way of shoring up government revenues, creating employment and diversifying its economy. 

Business Botswana’s proposals were developed with the input of several high-ranking officials from the finance and trade ministries, as well as other experts, such as those at the  United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation. 

The lobby group has ranked the urgency of its proposed reforms and places the cannabis recommendations amongst those that should be implemented urgently, between this year and 2021. Business Botswana recommends that the finance and trade ministries as well as public enterprises, should lead the investigation into the new cash crops. 

While government officials were involved in the production of Business Botswana’s proposals, the cannabis recommendation does not appear in the final Economic Recovery and Transformation Plan (ERTP) presented by the finance ministry to legislators recently. 

While the ERTP acknowledges that financial support needed to be redirected to commercial agriculture from subsistence schemes and

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that higher agricultural productivity would be a “quick win” for self-sufficiency improving the balance of payments, job creation, it focuses on the schemes to be supported, rather than identifying specific crops. 

“Despite historical problems in developing agricultural production, it is felt that the country nevertheless has potential for higher agricultural output and faster growth,” the ERTP reads.  “It is proposed that interventions should focus on commercialisation and increasing the scale of agricultural production, with a different and social support approach to subsistence farming.

“The proposed interventions need to be assessed to evaluate their commercial feasibility. They are included here (in the ERTP) subject to confirmation that their benefits exceed their costs. 

“The necessary feasibility studies will be taken immediately.” 

The ERTP is proposing that support be given to areas with proven agricultural potential such as Barolong Farms, Pandamatenga and Tuli Block and projects such as Zambezi Integrated Agro-Commercial Development Project.  Local farming journalist, Aobakwe Gofamodimo says cannabis farming is not something local farmers are talking about yet. He says while the concept is intriguing, the experience of other countries has shown that cannabis farming involves high access costs and may not be a major employment creator for Batswana.

“It’s not that any farmer will be able to do it, that an old lady with her field in a village will take it up,” he says.

“From Lesotho to the US, the licences for hemp farming are set very high and the cropping methods required are quite expensive ranging from greenhouses to tunnels.

“It’s a good idea to talk about, but we could end up seeing Batswana more being consumers, rather than the producers.” 

Gofamodimo’s concerns on costs appear confirmed by the fact that the country’s pioneering hemp farm, a project in Kanngwe, was developed by a South African company, which injected millions of pula.  

The project was suspended in 2019 after the exemption permit the company secured to allow them to farm the hemp, was revoked by the Agriculture Ministry. 

“Batswana are struggling with raising P200,000 for a small stock project. “Where would they get millions for a hemp project?” Gofamodimo wonders.  Business Botswana will be expecting some of these answers to come from the “the requisite research” it is asking government to conduct into the cannabis family.



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