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Call for Research & Development in the Budding Hemp Industry

by Motshedisi (Tshidi) Mathibe and Maryke Steynvaart

Hemp is one of the most important fibre crops both for South Africa and the rest of the world. It has been cultivated longer than any other fibre crop. September 2018 saw the South African government publicly announces the development of Cannabis industry and the legalisation of private use. These announcements called reviews of legislations of Cannabis and Hemp to encourage development industries. The perceived relationship between Hemp and Cannabis disadvantages the Hemp plant. Both come from the plant family Cannabis sativa L., but popularly classified as two varieties of the genus. The main difference is that hemp does not contain high levels of THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol) that has the intoxicating effect often associated with Cannabis Sativa, Indica, and Ruderalis. But hemp is high in CBD (Cannabidiol) that is growing in popularity for its claimed therapeutic effects, but hemp seed specifically is a foodstuff rich in vitamins, proteins/lipids, CBD, and Omega3 fatty acids. One particularly characteristic of hemp is its phytoremediative properties. This means that hemp has the ability to absorb heavy metals, pollutants & other toxic chemicals from the soil. This provides a means to rehabilitate the polluted soil of mine grounds & industrial zones. After which the hemp can be used in construction, specifically to produce hempcrete.

Hemp is a widely misunderstood plant with wide applications and many more properties waiting to be discovered. Globally, Hemp market is estimated at around USD 4.7 billion in 2019 and is expected to top USD 5 billion in 2020. Of this market, China is said to be the lead producer of Hemp, followed by France. Although the Hemp market is emerging at a very fast pace in other regions, it remains small in South Africa. Hence the call for research and development to understand the potential this market holds for employment creation, which is in line with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals 2030, the National Development plan 2030 and the National Cannabis Master plan 2030.

There are already actors in the Cannabis and Hemp space, such as Cheeba Academy, Dikla Training in partnership with PSL, who are doing a great job in educating the community to bring awareness and minimise the stigma. These actors are also pulling together to kickstart collaborative projects to help grow this nascent industry. The collaboration includes, but is not limited to negotiations to access to land that can be used to grow hemp, investors are earmarking capital for start-up projects & expensive facilities. Training programs for growing cannabis have been pioneered by Cheeba Academy and Dikla Training in partnership with PSL. Cheeba Academy provides courses and workshops covering a broad oversight of growing for different uses. Dikla Training is focussing specifically on educating large numbers of the labour force on how to grow and process medical cannabis and hemp for industrial purposes. Despite the efforts of the actors, there are still challenges facing the industry. Challenges are as follows:

  • Access to permits for Hemp cultivation, though Land Reform and Rural Development Minister Thoko Didiza announced in May 2021 that applications for hemp permits will officially open up. The wait is still on.

  • There are still many limitations stagnating the development of the hemp industry in South Africa.

  • The illegal status of hemp, which is classified under cannabis, which is still classified as a schedule 1 substance under the Controlled Medicine substances act.

  • Non-registration of Hemp seed as an agricultural seed

  • There are no well-developed supply chains who can supply seed to farmers.

  • No proposed legislation to allow Hemp commercial outlets within South Africa. The proposed Cannabis for Private Purposes bill only allows for using cannabis for private use.

In a country that is battling with growing unemployment rates, that has never been seen in the history of South African until the months of April 2020 to March 2021 due to COVID-19, the above-mentioned challenges requires urgent attention to allow Hemp commercialisation in turn create employment opportunities; which is in line with the National Cannabis Master plan and National Development 2023. As acknowledged on page 3 of the National Cannabis Master plan : “The country’s economy has been in steady decline for a number of years according to various reports from Stats SA.” But hemp provides vast potential Employment Opportunities, Skills and Capabilities Development, Export opportunities of Hemp based products & Product, Technology and Science research and development opportunities.

Hemp is starting to draw the interest of many investors, government officials & other institutions such as mines and universities. This is because as research and development continues, the budding socio-economic potential hemp holds, is unmeasurable to any other agricultural crop. WHO experts estimate South Africa to be the third largest illegal Cannabis and Hemp producer in the world, cultivating some 2,500 tonnes of cannabis annually. If legalised, this market is estimated at R27 billion annually for South African market by 2023. Even though some entrepreneurs have been at the frontier of the Hemp industry for decades, it remains a largely inaccessible avenue for many citizens.

There are three distinct sectors that look especially promising in the South African context. The first sector is hemp as Textiles & Fabrics industry, which can be used as a substitute for cotton & artificial fibres. The second sector, hemp as a Food Stuff because it is rich in vitamins, proteins, and omega-3 fatty acids. The third sector refers to hemp as a construction material that can be used to produce hempcrete, biofuels, and bioplastics. In addition, it is a good alternative to wood that can be used to produce furniture. There is also potential to use hemp for animal feed and animal bedding, and there are also applications in the paper & pulp industries.

Nevertheless, there is still much more that needs to be done before the hemp industry can kick start its growing and processing capacities. First and foremost, hemp permits must be open to the public; legal seed supply chains must be set up, which can only occur once hemp seed is registered as an agricultural foodstuff; Machines that can process hemp into the various needed forms & to produce products; and local as well as international market avenues to supply materials and products.

Research and Development is a critical component for developing the Hemp industry in a sustainable and inclusive manner. This will help to inform economic and community programs in order to be beneficial rather than indirectly harmful and exacerbate the pervasive socio-economic issues these communities face. The University of Pretoria has the resources, physical and intellectual, to provide assistance where possible. Hence, all academics and post-graduate students are called to volunteer to assist in these projects through; Developing and engineering machines that can process hemp into various forms; Research on the business and market potential of hemp; Research on the nutrition of hemp as a foodstuff; Research on the socio-economic impacts hemp can have on communities; Legislative and policy engagement to create the regulatory environment; Research on how to maximise development and addressing poverty, unemployment and inequality. This is especially a unique opportunity for postgraduate students to do research as part of a committed team, linked to real world industrial and community needs and practical applications, in a sector with exciting future opportunities.

If you are interested in this opportunity please feel free to send COUP an email at



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