- In 2017, Lesotho became the first African country to legalise cannabis. Nearly six years later, the industry is yet to change the fortunes of the country’s poor and jobless.
- International companies with deep pockets have cashed in, but licences to sell cannabis legally are so expensive that local growers fear they may always stay locked out of the business opportunities that a legal market holds.
- Though the industry continues to grow, the benefits are not felt by ordinary Basotho.
In Mapoteng, in northwestern Lesotho, near the border with South Africa, on sloping landscapes that, in winter, are the colour of the donkeys that traverse them, cannabis grows — in hard-to-access ravines and in people’s front yards, alongside pea and spinach patches.
The plants are mostly hidden, because even though legislation in 2008 made it possible to grow cannabis for medical or scientific purposes in Lesotho, doing so without a licence from the health ministry, and for recreational use, remains illegal.
By the time the first licences were issued in 2017, Teboho Mohale* had just finished high school. Except for a police station and the Maluti Adventist hospital, which employ a handful of people, there are few job opportunities in Mapoteng. So, Mohale started planting matekoane (cannabis) to sell to local people. Five years on, he still does not have a licence and at a cost of 500 000 maloti (about R497 000), he doubts he will ever get one.
He and other Basotho people, many of whom have grown cannabis for decades, say only the elite and multinationals have benefited from the legislation that was heralded as something that would spread the economic gains among many.
In the 2019 African Cannabis Report, Lesotho’s industry was projected to be worth at least $92-million (R1.6-billion) by 2023. Yet Mohale and others, whose plants take eight months to mature in open fields, say they have been left out of the booming industry.
All Mohale can do is sell the crop from his roadside stall where grilled chicken gizzards and feet, among other things, are also on offer. “When I sell to locals for 5 maloti or 10 maloti, sometimes I get 600 maloti in total,” he says.
His customers are poor and pay in trickles, “like droplets from a tap”. So he prefers selling his entire harvest, 12.5kg of cannabis, in Hlotse, a market town near the South African border, where he gets 500 maloti in one go — not enough for the monthly upkeep of his family.
Politicians promised partnerships with local cannabis growers. They haven’t materialised
Since the first marijuana cultivation licence was issued, Lesotho’s politicians have talked about opening up the industry to benefit ordinary people.
Emmanuel Letete, then an economist at the ministry for development planning, said in 2019 that cannabis was going to “set the country free”. Letete, now governor of the Central Bank of Lesotho, says the industry hasn’t lived up to expectations. He said the government has not done much to improve the possibilities of those already farming cannabis outside the legal framework because “there are no resources”.
The then prime minister, Moeketsi Majoro, said he wanted to see commercial cannabis companies forming partnerships with communities. But neither his government nor his party, the All Basotho Convention, has achieved any. Likewise, in 2018, the then health minister, now opposition leader Nkaku Kabi, said that he was working to allow more Basotho to benefit from the cannabis industry. Nearly five years on, there has been no word from government or opposition on any such strategy.
Why everyday Basotho have missed out on the “green rush”
One of the first companies to get a licence in 2017 was Medigrow Health, which in 2021 announced it had brokered a multimillion-pound deal to sell medicinal cannabis into Europe. Andre Bothma, its CEO, did not respond to a Guardian request for an interview, but did tell a Quartz Africa journalist in 2019 that he planned to employ the entire village of Marakabei, where the company is located and which has a population of about 2 000.
In 2022, he said in another interview that he employed 200 people from the local communities. In a country where almost a quarter of the population is unemployed, and 31% live below the poverty line, any jobs are significant.
However, Mohale says employment is not the goal for him. He would like to grow cannabis legally on his own land. He says he would have started already had it not been for the prohibitive cost of the government licence.
New commercial companies, with international investors, continue to move into Lesotho, building production plants in rural communities. In 2020, Morama Holdings started operations at Ohala Matebele in Letsatsing, in the northeast. When the company launched, Majoro praised the investors for giving a 20% shareholding of the company to Basotho nationals. However, Samuel Molemo, chief of the Letsatsing area was unhappy that the Basotho shareholders in Morama are not local people, but from the capital Maseru.
Molemo says the way Lesotho politicians make deals has to change. “We need to change our mindsets, especially when it comes to things that we own, like cannabis, natural resources and water. We need to have total control of our natural resources as Africans.”
“But as a chief, I have no say on people’s personal land and payment issues because in Lesotho we don’t sell (communal) soil,” says Molemo.
Motšelisi Mokhethi of the University of Lesotho says some of these companies give landowners a lump sum to establish plants in rural areas. “Initially, the money seems significant. But they only realise after a few years that they got a raw deal,” says Mokhethi.
Julian Bloomer, of Mary Immaculate College in Ireland, has written extensively about Lesotho’s long historical connections with cannabis cultivation. “Whilst I heard of the desire to help those from the illicit cannabis sector into the medical cannabis sector, I haven’t seen any plans for how this might happen.
“Clearly the high cost of licences mean that only those with access to capital have been able to enter the medical cannabis market,” he says.
But there are undeniably jobs from this new industry. Thato Polane, 21, has been hired by Morama Holdings and takes home 3 000 maloti (R2 984) a month in return for tending plants. Far better than the 500 maloti (R497) a month she used to earn as a cleaner.
She is luckier than her two friends, Nyefolo Mathinya, 31, and Liteboho Thamahane, 23, who go every day to the gates of the cannabis plant to ask for work. Mathinya says she wakes up with the chickens every morning so she can walk there. She is tired but won’t give up. Like many young people in Lesotho, they have never been formally employed and the cannabis farms are the first industry to arrive in their area in their lifetimes.
A spokesperson for Morama Holdings said: “We take our community responsibility very seriously, hence we have an incredibly stable workforce with most of the team being with us since we started operations.”
* Name changed on request
This article was originally published by The Guardian’s global development project – part of Guardian News & Media Ltd.