In 2017, Lesotho became the first African country to allow the legal cultivation of medicinal cannabis. It happened with a huge fanfare and lots of expectations (read our country report on Lesotho) Subsequently the project has started running slower with certain companies pulling out. It is always easy to blame the government for this, but behind every story is another one. In order to really understand how things are running there on the ground, we had a conversation with Tseli Khiba, founder and CEO of Oane Solutions. In this interview she sketches a much more balanced picture than a lot of the stories going around and we find out what is going on in the cannabis industry in Lesotho. 

What were the expectations when these new cannabis laws were announced? 

The laws have been on the books since 2008, but the thing really kicked off late 2016 when Lesotho became the first African country to allow the growing of medicinal cannabis. The idea behind the law was to bring Lesotho in line with what is happening in the rest of the world. So, a lot of it is repetition of what laws there are in other countries with the recognition of treaties that relates to medicinal and scientific use. When the laws were initially discussed in 2008 the conversation around cannabis was not what it is today, but over time we started seeing more trends and initiatives. I started engaging with the government about this on behalf of a client and we wanted to see if it was within the law to get the cannabis programme going. We needed the regulations of the practical aspects. This did not exist, but we soon realised that the law itself was quite detailed, and allowed certain things to happen. So, we were looking at what was happening in Canada, and other jurisdictions and used it in our presentations to the Lesotho government. It took about a year for the first licenses to be issued. There was obviously some hesitancy, but in the end, it worked.

How streamlined is the licensing process in Lesotho at the moment? 

At the moment it is challenging for two reasons: One, there is a Narcotic Bureau that has been established by legislation. They are the body that reviews applications and issue licenses. Who will sit on this board is still a bit of a grey area, but I believe the government is addressing it at the moment. There seems to be administrative challenges between the Minister, the pharmaceutical department and the Narcotic Bureau. Secondly, a lot of licenses were issued between 2017 and 2018, some legitimately, some not. So, if you are going to take a license over from an existing license holder, you need to make very sure that it is a legitimate one. You also have to negotiate the price which in some cases is problematic. 

Is the system of the transferable license still normal practice? 

I know that the government has been trying to stop that because in a lot of cases license owners has absolutely nothing to do with the industry and they weren’t vetted properly. So now you have to notify the Ministry if there are significant changes in your company. If they don’t know about changes, it means you could lose your license because of non-compliance. Also, even though the license is valid for ten years, you have to apply for a compliance certificate on an annual basis. This tightening of the system has rooted out some of the shadier licenses. 

How is cannabis perceived within the Lesotho society? 

It depends who you talk to. In my circle we are quite open about it. The extended family and friends talk quite openly about it and it’s interesting to talk to them about the challenges I face on the legal side and the challenges that they faced back then. I find the Basotho quite open-minded when it comes to talking about cannabis because of our long history with it. It has been a cash crop for a long time. In the Eighties when they constructed the hydro-electric dam, the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) conducted research into the possibility of compensating Basotho for the loss of cannabis revenue in the area that were flooded by the project.–

So, there is no active resistance from the general population? 

In some circles there are. There have been some actions by the police and the military to curb illicit production. This past December they announced on the radio that they will be going around different parts of the country and if you are found to have cannabis on your property you will be arrested and the plants will be destroyed. It’s sometimes very contradictory.

There have been some issues in Lesotho around cannabis. Some growers pulled out and some of the momentum was lost. What is the current reality on the ground?

There were two issues that slowed things down. One, a lot of the companies that partnered with Lesotho citizens were Canadian based and they had issues back home and that reflected on their investment in Lesotho. Secondly Covid also had a huge influence on the industry. This has rooted out some of the companies that didn’t really know what they were doing because this industry is very capital intensive and some just couldn’t survive. There have also been some challenges with sales and the export market as well as some quality control issues. There is perhaps a handful of companies that are legitimate and that are starting to get the sales but it’s not the green revolution that is going to make everybody rich. The reality that this is not a quick cash-in is starting to dawn on some people. It has a lot of requirements and expenses and it’s getting to the nitty gritty of the industry.  

Are these problems on the ground solvable? 

I believe they are. Lesotho will always produce cannabis, legally or illegally. It is the job of the policy makers and politicians to be more responsive about what is happening on the ground. With companies shutting down there is the question of what will happen to those facilities and also the legacy farmers that were never included in the industry. This last group’s outcry has been consistent throughout.  What we need now is more responsiveness about practical problems and not trying to shape our industry like South Africa or Canada. I think we have enough experience and knowledge to create an industry that reflects what is happening on the ground. All our problems are solvable. 

The Southern African countries where growing is legal have a lot of sunshine and good strains of cannabis that is known all over the world, but they are forced to do things in a certain way by the international community. This sometimes feels a bit like a re-colonialisation process. What are your thoughts on that? 

Yes, that is a very big challenge because again that is the subject all these treaties that we are all part of. This is really where the problem is. We are also a bit of a late comer to the industry which means that we are catching up to a game where the rules have already been set. Trying to fit into their framework is not going to work. We are hoping to be able to create a different structure to our industry. We need to look more to a places like South America, Uruguay and Bolivia are good examples. Although, I’m not saying we should follow South American examples to the T, but it is necessary for us to look at what works for us like they did.  

Does the Lesotho government understand the needs of the industry? 

We have a new government that came into power in October last year, and we are all trying to get a sense of what the new government intends to do. In the Reforms-programme that I’m part of we are looking at laws to make sure that Lesotho becomes a more stable country and the cannabis laws are on the agenda there. In that sense government understands that there need to be reforms in cannabis laws. Whether they always know how to go about it, is another question. 

Interested in the cannabis industry in Lesotho and Southern Africa? Read the Cannabis Country Report on Lesotho or on South Africa and see what our man on the ground Wesley Petzer has to say about the industry and whether 2023 can be the year of solving the problem.