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Understanding Mpondoland: Including Cannabis Smallholders Remains a Major Challenge

Understanding Mpondoland: Including Cannabis Smallholders Remains a Major Challenge

Save the landrace, but at what cost?

Tijmen Grooten for Cannabiz Africa

8 May 2022, 22:00:00

By Tijmen Grooten for Cannabiz Africa.


Grooten is a Dutch researcher (Wageningen University) on Cannabis and Development and currently embarking on a large study on inclusion of small-scale cannabis farmers in Mpondoland South Africa.

Some context

Since the end of the 20th century, Cannabis sativa L. is making its comeback after a long period of legislative and public condemnation. Currently, the plant’s multiple, sustainable, economically advantageous uses for food, medicine, textiles, building materials and as a safe relaxant for adults are increasingly recognised, and many governments intend to build thriving cannabis economies. Since the 1990s various African countries have followed swiftly in the footsteps of The Netherlands, Uruguay and Canada in pursuing full legalisation and commercialisation of the cannabis plant. By 2021, South Africa became Africa’s frontrunner when the government issued the National Cannabis Master Plan.


Despite the sky-high aspirations of the South African government, currently all small-scale cannabis farmers are still operating in illicit and informal markets. This is simply because policy has not yet provided a way in which farmers can legally sell their plants. Between 20 and 60 thousand small-scale indigenous cannabis farmers have already been cultivating for at least 5 generations and have experienced a long history of violent criminalisation and economic-political marginalisation. Most of these farmers are rurally dispersed over the Dagga Belt region which traverses the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces. Pockets of rural farmers can be found in every province. 


More specifically, the highest concentration of Dagga (SA name for cannabis) farmers is in Eastern Cape Mpondoland.

According to president Ramaposa’s 2022 State of the Nation address, a major economic transition must take place wherein indigenous smallholders in Mpondoland must be the backbone. In the 2021 National Cannabis Master Plan, the government proposes three pathways to which smallholder commercialisation can be applied; cannabis for medicine, cannabis for industrial and food products and cannabis for adult use. However, until this day it remains largely unclear how the strategies of smallholder inclusion will be implemented. More importantly, it remains unclear whether the proposed pathways suit the agricultural practices and aspirations of the small-scale Mpondoland cannabis communities.


In order to scrutinise this question, I have been navigating the South African dagga landscape for the past three months. By talking extensively with farmers, activists, civil society organisations and government representatives, I try to formulate a critical perspective on how smallholder inclusion is (not) realised.

Who are we talking about?

First of all it is important to note that the cannabis farmers in Mpondoland are not one unanimous group. Rather, small communities of up to a few hundred households, are scattered across the Eastern Cape and showcase a diversity of farming styles and socio-economic status. The Mpondoland farmers can be roughly divided into three groups.


First, there are the indigenous or legacy farmers who are located deepest in the rural mountains. They have been growing cannabis landraces the longest (for over 5 generations), have access to an abundance of land (2700 m2 per household), their socio-economic status is among the lowest in the country and they are 100% financially dependent on cannabis cultivation.


The second group consists of indigenous farmers who are currently in the transition phase from landrace cultivation towards popular high-grade cannabis strains. Their socio-economic status is often higher than the rural legacy farmers and have less economic dependence on cannabis cultivation.

The third group consists of young cannabis farmers located in the outer edges of Mpondoland and specifically the coastal area. They have only started growing cannabis within the last 5 years and started cultivation exclusively with foreign bred and imported cannabis strains. This high-grade cannabis provides them with more stable income than conventional employment and their financial resilience is strong.


In talking about farmer inclusion, it is important to distinguish these groups to assess their particular needs and modes of representation. Since the government’s focus seems to want to be on the poorest farmers, this article seeks to put the situation of these farmers into perspective.

The harsh reality in rural Mpondoland

The first thing that hits me when entering the deep rural Mpondoland river valleys is the widespread poverty. Where 20 years ago cannabis sales fueled local development and allowed farmers to put their children to universities, this economic support has completely evaporated. When in the past cannabis cultivation was strictly criminalised and violently discouraged, the plants’ value was high and thus provided farmers with a decent income. After the 2018 court ruling, when the Constitutional Court urged parliament to decriminalise private cannabis use and cultivation, increasing competition of high-grade Cannabis has simply robbed indigenous smallholders from their entire income. 


Unintendedly, the seemingly progressive government policy has thus negatively impacted the living standards of the resource-poor dagga farmers, especially of those who are entirely dependent on the cannabis. On average, rural households have not been able to sell their cannabis harvest for at least 21 months, which has led to pulling their kids from school. Financial dependence has completely shifted from crop production to child-grants and out of desperation farmers have started to burn their excess cannabis.


This recent blow to economic resilience adds to the harshness of the prohibitions strategies to which these farmers fell victim over the past 20 years. For years, the South African Police Service indescrinantly sprayed farmers’ arable plots with the carcinogenic substance Glyphosate, which not only destroyed their crops but also severely affected their natural ecosystem and livestock’s health. Fortunately, under pressure from civil society organisations, the spraying stopped in 2016 but harassment by local police is still very common. Thus, where in the past criminalization impeded smallholders ability to make a living, the waning market currently intensifies the struggle to innovate beyond the subsistence economy.


A snapshot of life in poverty in Mpondoland looks something like this: The family, grandpa, a single mother and her 6 young children, wakes up at dawn in their clay hut. On an empty stomach and a sip of rainwater 3 children climb up the 500m mountain and arrive at school 2 hours later. Only at 12:00 do they receive their first meal of the day. After making grandpa a savoury breakfast of rice and potatoes, mama and her 2 oldest children walk for an hour to their cannabis field. Growing the cannabis landrace is an intergenerational task that is taught to the children and the division of labour is strict. The children tend the oxen and donkey to plough the field while mama weeds, chops down male plants and harvests an adjacent plot. After working 6 long hours in the field the sun reaches its peak and the family walk home. The afternoon is filled with a village meeting, watering the cork-dry vegetable garden, making fire and cooking a big pot of maize and pumpkin. At dusk, the children clean the plates, tidy up the sleeping room and lead the 3 cows, 4 goats and 1 pig back into their kraal. Without any electricity, the darkness literally breaks the day. Tomorrow, the same day again.


The question why these rural livelihoods still practice the basic farming techniques of 18th century Europe can only be answered in the context of structural socio-economic marginalisation. Countless communities still lack the basics of running water, electricity and decent infrastructure like roads and bridges. Imagine a government progressively advocating for a thriving smallholder cannabis economy while mothers cannot even feed their children with three healthy meals per day. Which challenge should have priority here?


Talking to 45 members of cannabis producing households has given me insight into the information vacuum in which they find themselves. Most farmers have only a very basic understanding of the full potential of the cannabis plant and about the current legislative process. Not surprising, by the way, since the National Cannabis Master Plan is not yet translated into the Mpondo language, IsiXhosa. This lack of information also results in it being impossible  for these farmers’ needs, wants and desires to be heard. Ultimately they have been and still are, the silent cannabis farmers of South Africa.


Many farmers still have the false hope that the old market demand for their mediocre cannabis will automatically restore itself. Even more shocking is the inability of these farmers to come up with ideas and strategies to change their own situation. Reasoning from a privileged rational position makes it hard to grasp why smallholders keep cultivating their unsellable crop. The reality of structural poverty brings me a bit closer. Besides illiteracy possibly being at play here, being hungry also results in spending the little energy on the most immediate needs, instead of pursuing the seemingly unachievable dream of inclusion.

A lost potential

Contrarily to their current struggles, smallholder cannabis cultivation in the Eastern Cape embodies a great potential for economic growth and human development. Pay attention to the following numbers because they are new to the world.

Since farmers have not been able to move their product for 21 months at least, they have started to stock up their Cannabis. The 50kg-bags of cannabis are literally piled up in the clay huts, currently amounting to 51 kg of cannabinoid-containing-plant material per household. For the two villages, Dikidikini and Mkumbi, this adds up to about 3800 kg of unused cannabis. For the laymen amongst us, this cannabis is ideal for extraction which forms the basis for valuable cannabis-oils and Isolates. Marketed against current rates their crude flower amounts to about R1.1 million, which converts to R21k per household. This amounts to a basic income but there are countless possibilities to add more value if local processing techniques were to become available. Consider this as a financial base-line that can only develop towards higher income.

The other side

After 1,5 month in the rural Eastern Cape, I travelled to Cape Town to get to know the capital-intensive side of the industry. On day one I am introduced to a Cannabis Social Club that opened its doors 2 years ago. The club is run with a clever coffee-shop-like model which tries to omit any financial transactions for cannabis. Signing up as a member is however only a formality and within 5 minutes, I have unlimited access to 10 different strains of high-grade cannabis and countless edibles. Clubs like these have gained immense popularity in the past years and Cape Town is home to a at least 10 or so. Even more staggering are the latest innovations on cannabis for delivery. With UberZol, a youngster on a shiny moped drops off a gram of green gold to any location in the city within the hour. 


A brief reality check though, all of these progressive services are still illegal or in a grey area of the law. Clearly the market is far ahead of legislation. It is a sobering fact that urban-based capital-intensive entrepreneurs are allowed to break the law while the outcompeted smallholder farmers have given up hope of receiving any support.

The disconnect

How can we understand these disparities against the backdrop of the most progressive cannabis policy on the entire African continent? Let me highlight a few prominent factors that impede smallholder inclusion.


First of all, I need to point out the legislative deadlock which currently impedes the industry from moving forward. Despite the political will for commercialization of smallholder cannabis production, the National Department of Justice and Constitutional Development has not yet enacted a law allowing the selling of non-medicinal cannabis. This forms a major roadblock that severely hampers all stakeholders in developing a progressive framework for bringing smallholders’ products to market.


A second factor at play here is how representation of smallholder farmers is organised. Appropriate representation for thousands of rural farmers is certainly not an easy task, especially because the farmers do not form a cohesive group. Civil society organisations, traditional leadership and local municipalities need to deal with remote access, strong power dynamics and varying farmers’ interests. 


These factors have severely challenged the past years’ public consultation sessions, which have failed miserably in including smallholders in the legislative process. On the provincial level, from where the cannabis industry is coordinated, there are neither coherent guidelines to structure farmers’ representation. This puts extra pressure on organisations on the ground which are implicitly made responsible for appropriate representation.


A third factor that goes hand in hand with good representation is a major capacity problem. This year, the Eastern Cape Rural Development Agency, which is largely responsible for coordinating the provincial cannabis industry, has a meagre budget of 10 million Rand. Although you would expect that a tight budget would favour prioritisation, the provincial government admits to having haphazardly spent money of which nothing has reached the resource-poor farmers. Most of the budget in the past years has been directed to individual innovating hemp farmers, but even those projects have not taken off.


The Shortage of capacity is not only prevalent with money, but also applies to knowledge. Understanding the viability and coordination of a cannabis industry requires a considerable degree of expertise and skill. Under pressure of the Constitutional Court the national parliament was not only pressured to supply a new act on cannabis use in Private, but also to formulate an entire National Cannabis Master Plan and readily start with its implementation within 2 years. 


This time-pressure has impeded appropriate consultation of cannabis experts and has hastily put many civil servants on the spot. Many government representatives have serious studying to do, and they need to get some spare time for that!

Save the landrace, but at what cost?

As a last complicating factor we must look at the way in which the relation between the indigenous cannabis farmers and their plants has been framed over for the past decades. Within the South African cannabis industry there is a widespread tendency to link indigenous cannabis farmers exclusively to landrace cultivation. 


The Mpondoland landrace, still referred to as ‘The Transkei’ (TK), is indeed the most dominantly grown strain by smallholder farmers, but this practice is not particularly linked to the Mpondo culture itself. Strikingly, the majority of the farmers that I have spoken to indicated not at all to like cannabis farming!


Farmers clearly explain that they grow cannabis purely for its economic benefits. In other words, for most smallholders cannabis is solely a cash crop and attitudes towards future agrarian change are overwhelmingly positive. The reason why this point is of major importance, is because it debunks the widespread idea that Mpondo farmers want to preserve and protect the landrace against the influx of foreign cannabis genetics. Although this might be a valid concern on its own, the question needs to be asked who is responsible for preserving the landrace genetics. Are these the resource-poor smallholders, despite the plant bringing them no financial or cultural benefit?


I would argue that as a direct or indirect consequence of the above rationale, Mpondoland smallholder farmers have been deprived from a level playing field. Although government stresses the importance of pro-poor development, the effort to listen to this farmers’ experiences and aspirations has unfortunately not been taken. Luckily, the momentum is shifting and the importance of target-led development starts to be recognized on national, provincial and local political levels.

A way forward

In their National Cannabis Master Plan, the government has expressed the ambition to develop three cannabis pathways; recreational cannabis, medicinal cannabis and industrial cannabis. However, it is clear that the inclusion of rurally-based smallholders into these pathways is not automatically happening. All these value chains have their own barriers to entry and corresponding challenges for smallholder participation.


For example, current cultivation of landrace cannabis cannot compete on the recreational market where high-grade cannabis satisfies the user-demand. This is simply a question of quality and consumers’ taste. On the medicinal side, the sky-high costs and quality standards for cultivation of controlled cannabis form an insurmountable roadblock for resource-poor farmers to enter. Expectations are that large pharmaceutical operators will quickly dominate the South African industry if the market is left unchecked. Lastly, there is the (im)possibility of hemp cultivation for smallholders. Besides the fact that this cultivation is not yet happening and that its introduction will completely replace landrace cultivation, the economical viability of small-scale hemp production seems to be the main bottleneck.


All in all, it is clear that for smallholders to be (re)integrated in the future cannabis economy, they need to drastically change their agrarian practices or a specific off-take market, that connects to the existing practices, must be provided. This is easier said than done, but I would like to encourage the government to engage in this discussion!


There is one last thought that I must share. I was greatly surprised to hear from the cannabis farmers that they were not inherently passionate about their work. This thus leaves open the important consideration of supporting these farmers towards an alternative future. Farmers’ attitudes towards the introduction of new crops were largely positive, and should activate the government to also think outside the cannabis box. Although it sounds harsh to substitute an ancient cultivation practice, but how much poverty is needed before rigorous action is taken?

Recommendations on the way forward

  • First and foremost, an inclusive cannabis industry cannot move forward in South Africa without a proper legal framework that regulates the commercialiszation of the plant. This missing piece of legislation currently impedes farmers from earning any kind of income from their current agricultural practices. The government’s goals of economic growth, job creation and poverty alleviation cannot be met in this way.

  • A second requirement for a fair and inclusive industry is proper instructions and controls on cannabis-related police work. The ongoing police harassment of cannabis cultivators and traders must stop in order for the industry to develop further.

  • Thirdly, the national government should draft a strategy document exclusively focused on the inclusion of indigenous or resource-poor cannabis farmers. Key aspects that should be included are: a clear definition of what indigenous cannabis farmers are; a quantitative analysis of how many farmers need support and where they are located; an implementation strategy to provide farmers with the basic services (running water, irrigation, electricity and infrastructure) and appropriate market support; a detailed description of how farmers’ representation must be organized; and lastly a thorough analysis on which cannabis pathway (recreational, medicinal, industrial) connects best to the smallholders’ current practices. The possibility of supporting these farmers with crop substitution must be an integral part of the strategy.

  • In order to be able to draft and implement a proper inclusion strategy, the responsible government personnel should educate themselves. It is paramount to understand the complex dynamics of the cannabis industry and South Africa hosts ample institutions who can readily provide the appropriate training.

  • Lastly, the Mpondoland farmers invite the government to come visit them and listen to their needs. In order to effectively execute a pro-poor and inclusive cannabis policy, the needs of these people must be taken as the leading principle.

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